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For Poor, the Squeeze May Get Tighter

The state budget has bad news for 2.4 million needy: no cost-of-living increases in assistance checks next year. Many already are struggling.

January 13, 2006|Jeffrey L. Rabin and Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writers

Sena Perez works two jobs, attends a community college in Pasadena and receives a monthly check from CalWORKs, the state's welfare-to-work program.

She and her husband, Henry, a landscaper, struggle to support themselves and their four children who range in age from 20 months to 11 years.

"Everything goes up every year: rent, food. Nothing stays the same price," Sena Perez said.

The Perezes, who live in a two-bedroom apartment in West Covina, said they would suffer if the election-year budget proposed Tuesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is adopted by the Legislature.

In a year when most other state programs are getting more money, the spending plan unveiled by the governor contains bad news for more than 2.4 million of California's poorest residents.

A cost-of-living increase for the aged, blind and disabled originally set for January 2007 would be delayed until July 2008. Welfare recipients would not get a cost-of-living increase next year.

"We're barely making it now," Perez said. "How are we supposed to make our lives better if we don't get the cost-of-living increase? I don't take advantage.... I go to school, I work, and I do everything they ask me to do, and yet I'm still struggling."

The amount of money being spent on the poor in California is rising, driven by sharply higher healthcare costs and expectations of growing numbers of recipients of government-paid healthcare. The governor's proposed $125.6-billion budget calls for spending $13.7 billion in state funds on Medi-Cal in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That is about $800 million more than the current budget. But denying the poor an increase in their benefit checks means they would be disproportionally hit and lose ground.

Lacking political clout, the poor have felt the pain of the state budget crisis in recent years, losing out on cost-of-living increases. Schwarzenegger would continue that approach, preferring to spend available dollars on other more politically popular programs, such as education and transportation, and avoiding a fee increase for college and university students.

Although the state's fiscal health has improved dramatically, advocates for the poor said the governor's proposed budget does not do enough to share the benefits of the state's economic recovery with the least fortunate.

"Those who are most needy, those whose voices are not heard are simply left out," said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

Kara Miller, a 31-year-old mother of four on CalWORKs who lives in South Los Angeles, is having enough trouble making ends meet.

Until recently, Miller worked as a cashier at the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Los Angeles. In the evenings, she worked at a gas station. She recently had a child and has not been working but expects to return soon.

"It's a lot of stress when you don't have a lot of money," she said.

Steve and Nichole Castner need every dollar from their $600 monthly welfare check. The couple and their three young children are renting a Ventura apartment while Steve, 23, looks to boost his hours moving office furniture.

Steve Castner voted for Schwarzenegger and even named his pet pit bull Arnold in honor of the governor. But Castner said he was disappointed by Schwarzenegger's budget proposal.

"He seems to be cutting costs from the wrong places," Castner said. "I'd still have a beer with him. But I'd make him pay."

Those who receive Supplemental Security Income checks would also be hit hard under the proposed budget.

A Los Angeles woman who asked that her name not be used said a cost-of-living increase is not a luxury. It is crucial to survival given the "constant increases in the cost of absolutely every basic necessity."

"How do you do the math and survive on $812?" said the woman, who receives SSI. "I'm always behind. I'm behind on my rent for this month. I'm constantly behind because there's not enough for basic necessities."

In the past when the numbers didn't add up, the woman, who suffered back injuries in a car accident and also has fibromyalgia, found herself homeless.

Each stint placed her further away from her goal of finding a job and being self-sufficient. "Who wants to be dependent?" asked the 44-year-old, who holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and has been on SSI since 2001. "I love to work."

Michael Brice, 50, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a rough Crenshaw district neighborhood. He receives $812 a month in SSI benefits. A disabled Army veteran who was homeless for years, Brice complains that "the rent keeps going up" but that his benefits do not keep pace.

Siegel and other advocates for the poor vow to fight the governor's cost-of-living delays in the Democrat-dominated Legislature. There they have powerful allies in Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). Both legislative leaders vow to fight the delay in cost-of-living increases for the elderly and disabled.

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