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Recipients Scramble to Retain Welfare Benefits

With the help of workshops, many are trying to win an exemption from five-year limit imposed by federal government.

January 02, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles welfare recipient Aretha Maxey was supposed to be among the 100,000 or so Californians scheduled to lose their cash benefits as the new year starts. Now she hopes to be among the tens of thousands expected to keep welfare checks coming for at least a few months more.

Spurred by vigorous outreach efforts, droves of low-income adults who are facing a five-year welfare limit are receiving exemptions that could extend their aid a few weeks or even several months.

State officials once estimated that as many as 100,000 adult recipients would reach their time limit in January, but now say that the number will be considerably lower. The California Budget Project, an independent group that surveyed several counties, put the number of people who will be cut off in January at fewer than 50,000.

Maxey was among a dozen residents who recently gathered at Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church in Watts for a workshop by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to help them apply for exemptions. Maxey cited a medical condition that she says stops her from working consistently. Exemptions also are allowed for such reasons as being a victim of domestic abuse or being the caretaker for an ill relative.

If her application is denied, the loss could wipe out a quarter of her family's monthly government income.

"It's upsetting to sit up and think about how I'm going to take care of my kids in the next few months," said the mother of two, who has worked sporadically since the birth of her youngest daughter, during which she suffered a mild stroke.

The clinic was one of the many events organized in California to help prepare recipients for one of the most controversial ingredients of national welfare reform: ending the guaranteed entitlement to cash aid.

Many of those attending still seemed unsure of what it all means to them, organizer Linda Williams said.

"Some are saying they're not worrying about it, but many more seem to be in denial, as if it's a bluff," she said. As checks stop coming this month, she said, "our fear is that we're going to be inundated with people."

A 1996 federal law restructured the nation's safety net for poor families, replacing Aid to Families With Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, adding work requirements and a 60-month lifetime limit on aid.

CalWORKS, California's 1998 welfare-to-work program, also imposed a 60-month limit -- but only for adults. Children will continue to receive state-funded cash assistance as long as the family meets income restrictions.

County officials are attempting to contact all recipients who could be affected and review their cases individually. Officials say the brunt of the state's time limits could fall in late spring or early summer.

In Los Angeles County, officials previously estimated that 11,000 people would hit the time limit in January but now say the number will be fewer than 3,000. In Orange County, about 1,800 will lose aid this month, officials said.

The Los Angeles decline was mainly the result of women who came forward to report domestic abuse, said Margaret Quinn, who manages the cash aid program in Los Angeles County.

"Each month a victim suffered domestic abuse potentially means an extra month of aid," said Quinn, who added that the county will try to verify such claims but mostly will rely on the word of victims. "We will also try to find counseling services for them after the fact. Domestic violence is not the only clock-stopper, but it's one we're extremely sensitive to and we want to bend over backward and take people at their word."

A recipient also qualifies for extended time who is at least 60 years old, is caring for an ill or incapacitated person at home or whose cash benefits have been suspended for a period of time. In addition, exemptions may be granted on the basis of past child support payments from the noncustodial parent.

Most of these cases, though, will only postpone the inevitable, prompting nonprofit community providers and state and county agencies to brace for potentially serious consequences as thousands of adults lose aid.

In most families, the loss will mean about $131 per adult each month -- for a mother and two children, for example, the monthly grant would drop from $679 to $548. But some families with working parents could be more severely affected, according to a recent report by the California Budget Project. In a family of four, with two parents hitting the time limit and monthly earnings of $1,170 ($6.75 per hour), the cash grant would drop from $337 to $76.

The report found that most adults affected by time limits are working -- 91% in Santa Clara County, 65% in Riverside County, 48% in Orange County and 58% in Los Angeles County -- but that most earn too little to become self-sufficient.

State officials note that adults will remain eligible for food stamps, Medi-Cal and two years of subsidized child care.

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