At the center of the budget storm

May 20, 2010 

browning-1When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month unveiled his admittedly “ugly” spending plan that would slash the safety net for the state’s poor, one man understood the implications better than most.

Philip Browning oversees Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services, the largest such agency in the nation, serving more than 2 million people. Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget takes dead aim at the services his nearly 14,000 employees deliver, including in-home help for the disabled and the state’s welfare-to-work program.

Given the opportunity, here’s what Browning would respectfully tell the governor. “You need to visit one of our offices. Spend the day with one of our customers. Look at the people affected by your decisions. Until you see and experience their problems, you can’t appreciate your impact.”

Schwarzenegger, who has vowed not to raise taxes as a way to close California’s $20 billion deficit, has presented the legislature with a 2010-2011 budget that is unparalleled in the breadth of its proposed cuts to social programs. The largest single reduction would be the $1.6 billion CalWORKs welfare program, which provides an average of $500 a month to families and requires participants to eventually obtain jobs. Its elimination would make California the only state without a welfare-to-work program for low-income families with children.

Now the budget action will shift to California’s deeply partisan legislature, where Republicans have vowed to block tax increases and Democrats have insisted they will not, in the words of Senate leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, “be a party to devastating children and families.”

This week, Democrats got ammunition from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which said Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts to CalWORKs and other social programs should be rejected in favor of new fees and other less damaging approaches to replenish state coffers that have been drained by the faltering economy.

As Browning knows, the stakes in all of this are extraordinarily high for L.A. County, which is grappling with its own $500-million budget deficit. His department has estimated that if CalWORKs was eliminated, 320,940 children in 167,617 families would lose cash assistance. Financial responsibility then would be shifted to the county’s general relief program, costing the county an estimated $452 million annually—if just half of CalWORKs participants were deemed eligible. (Click here for an analysis by the county’s Chief Executive Office.)

And the fallout wouldn’t end there. More than 4,000 county employees who administer the CalWORKs program would suddenly find themselves without jobs, putting additional strains on county services at a time when CalWORKs’ client rolls already have swelled because of the recession. “There are very few empty seats in our waiting rooms,” Browning said.

Browning said he drove by one of his agency’s offices the other day and saw people lined up in the early morning drizzle. “They were standing out in the cold so they could be first in line to get inside a warm building, where they could apply for a benefit that is meager, at best.”

Many of these people, he said, represent the newly needy, who never pictured themselves applying for food stamps or benefits that the governor now wants to end. They’ve come in such large numbers, Browning said, that some of his front-line workers have had a hard time adjusting. “The workers identify more with participants today than ever before,”
Browning said. He said they tell him: “They look just like me. I feel so bad.”

To help them cope, Browning said he created an “emotional well-being class,” where workers can share their experiences and find support. He said he also created a “basic finance” class that teaches about “bankruptcy, foreclosure, all the terms that we are having to deal with.”

The imperative now, Browning said, is to communicate these realities to Sacramento.

“I have to make the best case possible about how human lives are going to be impacted by the decisions that politicians make in Sacramento,” Browning said. “They are far removed from the everyday trials and tribulations of these individuals. Some our legislators have taken the time to go on ride-alongs with us. They’ve seen the debilitation, they get it. But there are some who we can’t get to take that journey with us yet. They’re the ones we’re trying to show that what we’re doing is responsible, accountable and not overly generous.”

In recent weeks, he said, the agency has been videotaping people who desperately need the programs that are on the governor’s hit list, including In-Home Supportive Services, which has been targeted for significant cuts. The IHSS program pays a worker to provide basic care for qualifying seniors and others with disabilities so they can live independently.

“Without someone to take care of them at home,” Browning said, “I’m convinced they’d be institutionalized.”

browning-2He said the videos—one of an elderly disabled woman, the other of a severely handicapped child—would hopefully be shown during budget deliberations to give legislators a real-life understanding of the issues beyond the statistics.

Still, no matter how effective the strategy, Browning knows that difficult days lie ahead. He believes compromise will be reached in Sacramento to avert the worst-case scenarios but that state government simply has run out of gimmicks to balance the budget.

“All the smoke and mirrors have been used,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who are going to be hurt.”

A lifeline for independence

Faced with the prospect of serious cuts to social services in the California budget, the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services has produced two videos showing the crucial role of one endangered program—In-Home Supportive Services, which helps seniors and others with disabling conditions avoid institutionalization.

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Posted 5-20-10

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