Magazine article Policy & Practice

There Is Opportunity in Every Crisis

Magazine article Policy & Practice

There Is Opportunity in Every Crisis

Article excerpt

We've run out of adjectives to describe the times, but the county-administered safety net programs in California are under siege. Over a year ago, the housing meltdown in our county began to drag all other aspects of the local economy down with it. In some areas, entire neighborhoods collapsed overnight. As larger numbers of people lost their jobs, and then their houses, applications for cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid began to climb. TANF applications in 2008 were up over 30 percent, food stamp applications over 75 percent. In January of this year, the bottom dropped out and visits to our offices shot up 60 percent over the previous months. It could not have come at a worse time.

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County property tax revenues have declined precipitously while state reimbursements for county social services have fallen. Faced with an $18 million budget shortfall, we cut more than 200 permanent and more than 100 temporary positions. Seventy-four staff members were laid off, including half of our child welfare workers. These reductions took place on the last day of December. On the first business day of January, our waiting rooms were fuller than they had ever been before, with less than half the staff to assist applicants.

As of the date this article was written, California's legislature remained deadlocked and unable to agree on a budget. In February, the state began to run out of cash and started sending county social service department's "IOUs" rather than their normal payments. Counties are relying on their own reserves to cover the costs of benefit payments and keep offices open, but will only be able to do this for a month or two. Some counties have even taken the state to court to shake loose their payments.

With every crisis, however, there is the heralded opportunity. Reporters suddenly became interested in our growing crisis, attracted as they are to a good tragedy. Both the print and electronic media carried stories on our plight--even the Wall Street Journal worked us into an article about the recession. Taking advantage of this new interest, county welfare directors began to talk about the "newly poor." This seemed to appeal to reporters looking for a new angle on stories about social service programs. We worked with a local newspaper reporter for several weeks on an article that ran with the headline, "Newly poor spike in East County." The article featured the story of a man who had been a carpenter for 20 years building houses. He was laid off from his job, then lost his own house and turned to us for help. …

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