One in five Los Angeles County residents -- nearly 2.2 million people -- are receiving public assistance payments or benefits, a level county officials say will rise significantly over the coming months as the fallout from the recession continues.
The percentage of people on county aid already equals the figure at the height of the 2001-03 recession and far exceeds the one in seven who needed help during the economic downturn in the early 1990s and the one in nine assisted in the collapse of the early 1980s.
The rise in welfare recipients in the county is the first sustained uptick since welfare reform under the Clinton administration imposed strict time limits on benefits in 1996.
County officials warn that tens of thousands of additional frustrated job seekers -- unemployment in the county currently stands at 9.5% -- are expected to seek aid to weather the persistent recession once their other benefits run out.
The total includes those receiving food stamps and general relief as well as other county-administered aid programs, such as in-home healthcare. The cost -- shouldered by the county, state and federal governments -- was $334 million a month by the end of last year, according to the latest report by the county's Department of Public Social Services.
The rising demand has left public assistance offices ill-equipped to deal with the growing multitude of indigent people. In some locations, lines routinely snake hundreds of feet outside entrances.
"We have the highest human service burden of any county in the country in sheer numbers," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
"Two million people is the size of some countries; that's how big our problem is," he said.
To have reached the point of receiving county aid, recipients usually have little left.
Qualifying for help most often means they already have run out of unemployment insurance and drained their bank accounts and other assets.
In other cases, low-wage workers or those whose hours have been cut can earn so little that they qualify for Medicaid or food stamps.
The steepest increases in need have been in the Pomona Valley, the Lancaster area, the San Fernando Valley and East Los Angeles.
By June 2010, officials estimate, the number of people participating in the county's general relief program, now at 74,143, will reach 91,000. That would erase 11 years of reductions in the caseload. The program provides $221 monthly to individuals who qualify for no other programs. Roughly 60% of those served are believed to be homeless.
Also by June of next year, the number of people receiving payments through CalWorks, the welfare program for families, is expected to rise to 400,000 from the current 367,173. That would erase three years of reductions.
In a sign of how stressed the economy is, county officials report that just as many applicants are denied as are approved; these denials reflect strict qualifications in place for most programs.
For years, declines in the welfare rolls had been offsetting the costs of steady increases in numbers of people qualifying for healthcare assistance through Medicaid and other programs. The demand for those programs has been driven by a growing number of senior citizens and increasing numbers of people going without employer-based health and disability insurance.
That welfare and healthcare demands are increasing at the same time is worrisome to officials.
In an attempt to halt the increases, Miguel Santana, a county deputy chief executive, said he hopes in the coming months to place general relief recipients in jobs or in federally funded programs that provide cash and medical assistance.
"We need to act more aggressively than ever to stem the tide" in general relief, Santana said.
Many of those getting help say they have done everything they can think of to find work.
In the waiting room at the welfare office in Rancho Dominguez, where late last week even the line for a parking space was dozens of cars long, 32-year-old Erlinda Romero held a rolled copy of the Pennysaver, dogeared on pages listing jobs she pursued.
"I can't get a callback," she said, noting that training last year to become a medical clerk has not yet yielded a job. Meanwhile, she receives Medicaid benefits and $500 in monthly welfare for herself and four children.
Nearby, 50-year-old Ed Baldwin slumped in his chair waiting for his name to be called to renew his food stamps. He has been unemployed for three years, since being laid off from his job as a mechanic for heavy trucks.
"This is getting scary," he said. "There are no jobs."
County officials say they are worried that just as the need for county aid surges, the treasury is dwindling.
Property tax revenue, usually stable, is shrinking for the first time in 13 years.
This comes at a time when the county, the region's largest employer, has ordered a strict hiring freeze that will include the Department of Public Social Services. The department's director, Philip Browning, has been ordered to draft a budget for the next fiscal year that is at least 5% less than the current year's.
Although the federal government is acting to increase food stamp and unemployment insurance benefits, programs that are wholly funded by the county -- including general relief -- remain static.
The monthly benefit of $221 has not increased for more than a decade, and no one is proposing that it increase now.
"We've got to be able to do the basics. We are not going to be able to do it in the same way we have in the past," Yaroslavsky said.
"If the hiring freeze in effect shuts down an office," he said, "we are going to have to look at an exemption. But we do not print money in the basement of the county Hall of Administration."