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The state's version of welfare-to-work faces a bad combination of budget shortfalls and more clients

By Loren Stein

A veteran advocate for the rights of the poor, Santa Clara County CalWORKs employment services manager Alette Lundeberg is no stranger to the long, hard fight. A crusader with a wry sense of humor, Lundeberg breathes a sigh of relief that the governor's most recent budget plan didn't savage her carefully crafted CalWORKs program any more than it did. "I'm anxious, but it could have been a lot worse," she says.

After intense lobbying, Davis backed away from his proposal to eliminate low-cost child care for former welfare recipients not yet earning 75 percent of the state median income, which would have added an enormous financial strain to those earning relatively low salaries in high-cost regions such as Silicon Valley. More than 1,400 children would have lost the state subsidy for child care in Santa Clara County alone, says Lundeberg. "We were thrilled; this was a great victory for this key department within the county social services agency."

But it's not all sunny skies ahead. Santa Clara County CalWORKs is the state version of the federal welfare-to-work program, created in 1997 after the overhaul of the welfare program. As of April, the program gives cash grants to 11,302 families in the county--the two largest groups are second- and third-generation Hispanic single parents and two-parent families of Vietnamese descent. (This is markedly lower than in previous years. In contrast, 16,000 families in 1998 received cash aid; four years earlier, 34,000 families received welfare benefits.) CalWORKs clients have also been able to take advantage of an ambitious array of job training and placement services as well as get help with drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse--and even tattoo removal.

As of January, some 2,200 Santa Clara County parents who have spent the last five years on aid will hit their limit and be dropped from the system for life--just as the economy has divebombed, and unemployment has reached new highs. (Their children, however, can continue to get aid.)

Despite these pressures, Davis has proposed an $88 million cut to the administration of the state welfare program, which determines eligibility for cash grants. On the employment services side, which Lundeberg runs, Davis doled out the same funding as last year. But with a rise in labor costs and the cost of living--and 1,000 more clients to serve--the flat funding amounts to a 6 percent reduction, says Lundeberg. Davis' proposed deep cuts to food stamps and Medi-Cal programs (the state health insurance program for poor people) also impact the working poor.

"We can't, by law, turn people away, so we'll have to serve more clients with a finite amount of money," says Lundeberg, who worries that she'll have to cut back on basic career-advancement programs as well as new services such as those for the learning disabled.

San Jose resident Deedee Aragon is a former welfare recipient now working as a clerk-typist for CalWORKs. When her husband, a machine operator, was injured at work and needed surgery, she had no choice but to drop out of night school, sign up her three young children for welfare benefits and get help in finding a job to support her family. "We were in a really bad situation, but I had high goals and dreams," she says. "I wanted to be a role model for my children. I wanted them to see both of us working. I needed to get my family back on track."

Through CalWORKs, Aragon received child care, work counseling and help with job interviews and self-presentation (and ultimately a job)--and her children were signed up with Medi-Cal. "I think it's a great program. They do so much to help people get back on their feet," she says. "There are so many opportunities for CalWORKs clients, so many programs to help people's different situations."

"Welfare programs are basic social justice issues," says Lundeberg. "Given the tools, [welfare recipients] want to work and do better for their families just like you and me. They've just had a lot of obstacles come up in life.

"When poverty is reduced," she adds, "we're all better off."

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

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