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L.A. County may spend money to save money on welfare

Budget cuts loom, but officials hope that laying out $7 million to help shift some general relief recipients to federal assistance will save local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

September 20, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

With the cost of helping Los Angeles County's welfare recipients expected to hit $1 billion by the end of this fiscal year, county officials are pushing a plan to shift the burden of some of the most hard-core unemployed to the federal government. If they succeed, local taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars, and thousands of disabled welfare recipients would see their aid more than triple.

But the hurdles could prove high. County officials propose spending $7.2 million to help applicants through a notoriously difficult process to qualify for federal disability assistance. The question remains: Does it make sense for the county to gamble millions now with massive state budget cuts looming?

L.A. County is projected to have nearly 100,000 general relief recipients by June, the highest in more than a decade, as more jobs are lost and unemployment benefits run out. General relief is intended as a short-term hand up for single adults.

A separate welfare program, CalWorks, provides cash aid for families with children and is also growing. As the welfare rolls swell, the county faces $114 million in state welfare cutbacks.

At the same time, the county's general relief payments are the lowest in the state among areas with comparable housing costs. Los Angeles County's recipients receive $221 a month, an amount set a decade ago during the Clinton-era push to move people from welfare to work.

"No one thinks that's adequate," said Philip K. Browning, the county's director of social services.

But even with some of the lowest cash aid of any urban county in the nation, cash payments are expected to reach $200 million this fiscal year. Nearly $800 million more will be spent on other social services for general relief recipients, including medical care and law enforcement costs, according to county projections.

Costliest among those recipients are people like Kevin Moore, 41, a schizophrenic alcoholic who dropped out of school in fourth grade. Moore went on county welfare earlier this year after finishing a two-year prison sentence for trying to hit his fiancee with his car. While incarcerated, Moore lost his home, bank account and job.

Officials believed that Moore's mental health problems would qualify him for federal Supplemental Security Income assistance and that shifting him to the program would be mutually beneficial.

On federal aid, Moore would cost the county nothing. Instead of a couple of hundred dollars a month, he could get up to $850. Instead of relying on emergency rooms at county expense, he would qualify for Medi-Cal. To improve his chances, Moore was among the first 1,300 welfare recipients to participate in two new county programs that provide SSI applicants with subsidized housing and other assistance.

Although federal welfare reform in 1996 shifted millions of unemployed workers away from government handouts and into job training, many of the most desperate remained on county-funded welfare, including the disabled, mentally ill and homeless.

A county-commissioned study released this summer found that a third of general relief recipients surveyed had a disability that would qualify them for federal aid. Considering all county resources that are used to help them, those with disabilities cost nearly 70% more than the average recipient, researchers found.

To help those people apply for federal aid, county officials propose spending $7.2 million on caseworkers, housing subsidies and medical evaluations and research. The county chief executive's staff and welfare advocates are still developing the proposal, which the board plans to consider Sept. 29.

"I know it's money at a tough time, but it is an investment," Browning said. "If this can prove to be effective, which we believe it can, it can be the model for other jurisdictions and for us to expand."

If 4,000 people were moved off general relief and onto federal assistance, the county would save $50 million after a year, according to the county's chief executive's office.

County supervisors' staffers met earlier this month to discuss their overall approach to welfare, and some supervisors have said they support the focus on shifting welfare recipients to SSI.

"Not only are you creating savings, but you're creating a real connection, a staff of people that are going to help these folks qualify for services," said Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes a third of those on general relief, said the plan is an effort to better serve the needy, salvaging good policy from a tight budget. "We don't run government one day at a time. We have to project how savings over the long term can be achieved and services can be provided to people who desperately need them," he said.

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