Budget Crisis Becomes Problem for the Poor

April 1, 2010

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As of this printing, on April 1, 2010 The Alameda County Board of Supervisors decision to make drastic cuts to the General Assistance program will take effect. The County optimistically claims a savings of $7 million per year, but the shortsightedness of this decision will cost us much more. A similar wave of cuts was passed in 1997, with the result being an increase in crime, homelessness, and food insecurity. Social advocates statewide have urged the Board of Supervisors, specifically, Supervisors Scott Haggerty, Alice Lai-Bitker, and Gail Steele – who all voted for these cuts – to reconsider.

The net result of the cuts will have a devastating impact on the poor. General Assistance, which currently provides $336 per client per month for up to a year, will be capped at three months, and further reduced by $40 if the recipient does not have medical coverage, and in an even more unjust outcome, the cuts will include a shared housing reduction. If a GA recipient tries to save money by entering a shared-living situation, they are as a result penalized by reduction percentages based on the number of roommates.

A UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy study showed that cutting General Assistance in 1997 was a grossly ineffective form of cost shifting. Before the GA cuts in 1997, 95% of those surveyed on GA had stable housing, which declined to 63% after the cuts. 57% of those surveyed lost food stamp benefits. Hospitals and other emergency services saw a rise in usage, and there was an increased reliance on shelters and community-based organizations(1). Based on this study as well as an analysis of GA cuts in LA County, the real and lasting cost to Alameda County – taking into account the shifting to emergency services – could be as great as 24 million per year(2). The proposed cuts are also a civil rights issue: 85% of those facing the three-month time limit are people of color, primarily African Americans.

Homeless Action Center (HAC) has proposed an alternate proposal to the GA cuts, based on a pilot study in Los Angeles County, in which 3% of the most expensive users were targeted for supportive housing. By targeting the frequent users, Alameda County could potentially save millions while still making an effort to combat homelessness and preserve the only social safety net available for the neediest population.

At its most basic level, General Assistance keeps people alive long enough to find stable permanent housing. These cuts seek to balance budget shortfalls on the backs of our most vulnerable population. If GA cuts go through, the ripple effect it will have on our homeless population will be a legacy of poverty and permanent indigence, after which reinstating General Assistance will have a negligible effect.

Notes:

1. Chimara, Ndubuisi, Alastair Fitzpayne, and Amy Lemley. The Impact of General Assistance Time Limits in Alameda County. University of California Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy, Graduate School of Social Welfare. December 4, 1997.

2. Daniel Flaming, Patrick Burns, Michael Matsunaga. Where We Sleep. Economic Roundtable, LA Housing Services Authority. (2009).

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