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[whitespace] Holes in the Net

Some of the most drastic cuts target the county's Social Services Agency, which extends the safety net for the county's poorest children and adults

By Loren Stein

Will Lightbourne, director of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, looks to the day when visionary political leaders at the state level decide that programs for the very neediest must be safeguarded, no matter what. "Can't we create some sort of financing system--trusts with fire walls--that let us set aside resources to serve the poor during economic downturns, when their needs are the greatest? It just doesn't make sense," says Lightbourne.

Budget cuts are inevitable next year, but human and health services are taking a disproportionate hit. "[The administration] is targeting the programs and people least likely and able to retaliate politically," says Lightbourne. But, he adds later, "no one pays me to get mad; they pay me to make things work." So, can he make what's on the table work? Here's what the county's chief of social services is looking at:

*In his May budget proposal, Davis reduced provider reimbursements for Medi-Cal recipients, making doctors less likely to treat poor patients. He cut Medi-Cal operations by $176 million (an estimated $10 million hit for Santa Clara County, which has 88,000 people on Medi-Cal), and reinstated quarterly reporting for Medi-Cal recipients, which could push more people out of the program. (The reporting requirements alone could reduce the Medi-Cal rolls by 20,000 in one year, says Lightbourne.) Davis also postponed the implementation of a law that would make sure every child who gets a free or discounted school lunch gets enrolled in the Medi-Cal program.

*The governor's new budget slashes the state's food-stamp program (specifically, operations) by $101 million. In the county, 17,000 people, mostly the working poor, are dependent on food stamps but not on any other benefit or service, says Lightbourne.

*In-home supportive services for the elderly or disabled are taking a statewide hit of $43 million--affecting 6,000 people in Santa Clara County. And services protecting dependent, abused or exploited adults were cut by $6.6 million.

*Davis took a $22 million bite out of the state's foster-care system--perhaps a $1 million cut to the county, which oversees 1,800 foster children. One risk, among others, is delayed payments to foster parents. "It's the drip, drip, drip that's wearing everything away," says Lightbourne.

*Foster-care system adoptions were cut by $16 million. "We've busted our butts to build an effective adoption system in California and this county," Lightbourne says. "The state is not paying attention," he adds, explaining that the state has to meet federal targets for adopting children or placing them in foster homes. "Before the cuts, we were teetering on the brink, barely passing federal standards. Now we're getting hit on the head with a lead pipe."

*3,900 children are served in some way by Santa Clara County's child-welfare program. Last year alone, 22,000 reports of child abuse or neglect were evaluated and assessed. Now, with a statewide cut of $28 million (as well as backing out of a $26 million cost-of-doing-business increase), these children will start falling through the cracks. "At any given moment, the program is close to its edge of capacity," Lightbourne says. "We have half as many child-protection workers statewide than we need to do a good job. To go backwards on that is unimaginable."

Says Lightbourne, "The working poor are playing by all the rules known to man, but they stand to lose the most from this. Most are not on cash welfare. The minimum wage is below the poverty level. Let's make the Legislature understand the relationship of these reductions to actual real life in the community."

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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