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More Vietnamese Immigrants Reaching End of Welfare Benefits

November 01, 2003|Scott Martelle and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

Locked in low-wage, dead-end jobs and socially segregated by limited English skills, working-class Vietnamese Americans in the state's welfare-to-work program are burning through their benefits much faster than other recipients, according to policy analysts, social workers and activists.

The effects have been most pronounced in Orange County's Little Saigon and in Santa Clara County, two of the nation's largest Vietnamese American communities, where thousands of immigrant working poor hold jobs that don't pay enough for them to keep up with California's cost of living.

In Orange County, about 80% of adults enrolled in the CalWorks program who had exhausted their benefits by September were Vietnamese, although they make up about 5% of the population, officials said.

Most were two-parent families with several children and a single low-wage earner. And tellingly, most did not take advantage of CalWorks training and life-skills programs designed to augment the cash assistance, officials said.

Los Angeles County, where Vietnamese Americans make up only 1% of the population, also reported that a disproportionately high number of those timing out were Vietnamese Americans -- about 12%, said Henry Felder, chief of research evaluation and quality assurance for the county Department of Public Social Services.

Contrary to public perceptions of welfare cheats scamming a free ride, those timed out of the system played by the rules, said Duc Nguyen, a director of Hope Community of Santa Ana.

"People think that people on welfare are lazy," said Nguyen, whose agency helps Vietnamese clients find social programs. "That's not the case. A lot of them are just so helpless. They don't have what it takes to find a [better] job."

California's Vietnamese community includes two economically disparate groups. At the end of the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of educated and wealthy Vietnamese escaped the Communist regime and set up profitable expatriate communities in the U.S. -- particular in Westminster.

A second wave of poor and relatively uneducated immigrants began to arrive in the late 1970s and 1980s, seeking a better economic future. Most of the working poor are among this group.

Statewide, about 15,800 recipients ran out of benefits in January, and about 3,000 recipients have been dropped from the rolls each month since, said Andrew Roth, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.

Losing eligibility means a sharp drop in income for families -- even those with children still receiving benefits -- who can least afford it. Some have lost as much as $300 a month -- a large sum for families living on a small budget -- and are forced to take on a second or third job, social workers said.

"There's an overall feeling of anxiety and worry about their future," Nguyen said. "Right now, we just don't know what to do to help them."

The welfare time limits began in 1998 when California responded to federal welfare reforms by establishing the CalWorks program. It requires able adults who receive cash grants to work to maintain their eligibility, and limits recipients to five years of benefits over their lifetime.

The intent was to end long-term welfare support for individuals and reconfigure the system to act as a bridge, helping people in need to rebuild their lives. As part of that, CalWorks established job-training and life-skills programs. Time limits were waived for the elderly, people with disabilities, children and victims of domestic abuse.

For many families who've run out of benefits, being trapped in poverty is a point of humiliation; many who have lost their benefits declined to describe their predicament.

"Part of it is embarrassment," said Peter Daniels, program coordinator for the Employment Services division of Catholic Charities of Orange County. "It's not a real proud thing for them to be discussing their problems."

One former recipient whose benefits ended at the beginning of the year said she has struggled to break free of poverty. Now she is resigned to it -- but hoping to position her children for a better life.

"I'm stuck and it's frustrating," said Thao Nguyen, 35, of Westminster, a unemployed single mother of three children, ages 10, 9 and 5. "I don't know what my future will be. I can't afford to leave my children and work and I don't have the skills I need to make a better living."

Nguyen, whose mother was Vietnamese and whose absent father was an U.S. soldier, was raised in poverty in Vietnam and never attended school. Scorned in Vietnam for being of mixed race, she left in 1991 under a program allowing Vietnamese children of American soldiers to enter the United States.

Nguyen married after immigrating, but her husband -- and the father of her three children -- left her about five years ago, she said. They are in the process of divorcing, she said.

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