WELFARE REFORM: IMPERIAL VALLEY
AUGUST 25, 1997
A look at how welfare reform is affecting people in California's Imperial Valley.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, how welfare reform is affecting people in California's Imperial Valley. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles first reported this story in February. Here is a second look.
JEFFREY KAYE: Like state officials around the country, California Governor Pete Wilson has pledged his commitment to carry out the federal welfare reform law. That law requires able-bodied welfare recipients to find work.
GOV. PETE WILSON, (R) California: Any legal job is better than subsidized idleness. Any legal job is an acceptable means for entering the work force. There's a lot more dignity in any minimum wage job than in sitting on a couch collecting welfare.
JEFFREY KAYE: Federal law puts a five-year cap on welfare, but moving welfare recipients to work will be no easy task in areas with high unemployment. In California's rural Imperial County the unemployment rate is 26 percent. And Social Services Director Jim Semmes calls welfare reform the challenge of the century.
JIM SEMMES, Imperial County Welfare Department: We estimate in Imperial County one in three people gets some sort of assistance from our department, but we're looking at welfare reform measures that are going to be implemented now, and we are going to have to start performing immediately, so you have to have jobs. And Imperial County has not historically had those jobs. We have the lowest per capita income in the state of California. We have a history of high unemployment.
JEFFREY KAYE: The county, in California's southeast corner, is a land of contrasts. Abundant sun, ample irrigation, and a plentiful work force have turned a former desert into an agricultural bounty. With close to ½ million acres under cultivation Imperial Valley's monetary harvest is rich. Agriculture brings in $1.6 billion a year, more than in any other county in the nation. But the wealth does not filter down. 24 percent of its people live in poverty.
CELESTE CANTU, Imperial Valley Housing Authority: This is our example of pretty poor living conditions.
JEFFREY KAYE: This would be the extreme.
CELESTE CANTU: This is the extreme. There's other places like this in Imperial County. This is not the only one, but it's an example of the extreme.
JEFFREY KAYE: Celeste Cantu, executive director of the Imperial Valley Housing Authority, says this subdivision is also an example of the region's precarious economy. About 140 people live here. The roads are unpaved; there's no sewage system; and the water is piped into homes from a nearby irrigation ditch. Not everyone in Imperial County lives in such dire straits, but Cantu forecasts a countywide crisis if residents are denied welfare.
CELESTE CANTU: It's going to mean a lot of people will be hungry. A lot of people won't be able to pay their rent. A lot of people won't be able to clothe their kids and send them to school. Most of the people work in the fields, and they--they work for two months and harvest the asparagus, and then that's over with, and they depend on unemployment until that runs out, and then now they qualify for welfare, for AFDC, and that tides them over until the next season starts.
JEFFREY KAYE: Seasonal employment, seasonal public assistance, and low wages are key components of the Imperial Valley economy. Farm workers such as Cesar Serna live a hand-to-mouth existence.
JEFFREY KAYE: And how much does this pay?
CESAR SERNA, Farm Worker: $5.
JEFFREY KAYE: Is that what you all make, $5 an hour? And how many hours a day?
CESAR SERNA: 8, 7, 6, 10.
JEFFREY KAYE: No benefits?
CESAR SERNA: No benefits.
JEFFREY KAYE: Many farm workers make due by residing in Mexico, where living costs are cheaper. The county borders Mexico and workers who could live legally in the U.S. actually commute. At day's end in February, at the height of the winter harvest, there is a mile-long traffic jam to cross the border into Mexico. Other farm workers make ends meet as migrants, leaving their families and moving North with the harvests. But those who live in Imperial Valley rely on an economic system that depends on public assistance in-between seasons. Lydia Salazar, for example, is a mother of four. She gets AFDC, federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children, when her husband, a farm worker, is not employed.
JEFFREY KAYE: So right now are you receiving AFDC?
LYDIA SALAZAR, Welfare Recipient: Right now, no, because he's working right now.
JEFFREY KAYE: It's the season.
LYDIA SALAZAR: Yeah. Lettuce season.
JEFFREY KAYE: It's the lettuce season.
LYDIA SALAZAR: Yes.
JEFFREY KAYE: So he's out every day working.
LYDIA SALAZAR: Yeah.
JEFFREY KAYE: So when will he stop working?
LYDIA SALAZAR: He's going to be stopping in March.
JEFFREY KAYE: And then what?
LYDIA SALAZAR: He's unemployed for another two months, we go on AFDC again.
JEFFREY KAYE: Although aspects of Imperial County's economy are unique, according to the government, nationwide there are 2300 rural counties with jobless rates above 10 percent.
CELESTE CANTU: We're the same as other agricultural areas where our industry, agriculture, requires a ready and waiting able-bodied labor force. When the sun shines and it's time to harvest the asparagus, we need people in the fields at 4 o'clock in the morning, and they have to be available, and they need to harvest that day. And maybe we'll harvest the field today and then let it rest tomorrow, and we need to harvest again the next day. Those same people need to come back, and so we need a stable labor force willing to do that. Unfortunately, it doesn't pay enough to raise a family. It doesn't pay enough to live without some kind of public assistance.
JEFFREY KAYE: Imperial County has been trying to move people from public assistance to work with only limited success. It offers job training in construction, retail trades, and in welding. Five hundred people a year get training, but only two hundred and ninety get placed in jobs. The need for job creation under the welfare reform law will pose a major problem for the county according to employment training director Sam Couchman.
SAM COUCHMAN, Imperial county Employment Training Department: I would say that we would have to place anywhere in the number of the thousands of people. I mean, I don't know how many it would be. I'm thinking that we would have to place ten times the amount that we place now. We're probably not going to accomplish the levels that the federal government insists establishing for us right now.
JEFFREY KAYE: Why not?
SAM COUCHMAN: Because the jobs are not there, and we have such a high unemployment rate.
JEFFREY KAYE: The county's former Agricultural Commissioner, Claude Finnell, doesn't expect that to change.
CLAUDE FINNELL, Former Agricultural Commissioner: If the people do go off welfare and if they do need jobs, there's not going to be any more jobs than we have now. The people that are working, the numbers of people that are working in the industry, that's just about all you can hire. So unless you fired everybody out here and hired the people coming off welfare, there's not going to be any place for people to work.
JEFFREY KAYE: All of which could place an enormous burden on Imperial County welfare officials. Under California law counties are the providers of last resort, so when welfare recipients are cut off from federal aid, they will be entitled to general assistance from county governments. Elected Supervisor Dean Shores says his county could be facing bankruptcy.
DEAN SHORES, Imperial County Supervisor: In the past our general assistance has been thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year budgeted for general assistance, and now we're looking at the possibility, the reality is that we could go as high as two million dollars in Imperial County.
DEAN SHORES: (on phone) Are you willing to meet with us and work some of these problems out?
SANDRA SMOLEY: Yes, we are.
JEFFREY KAYE: Shores voiced his concern in a conference call with California welfare officials earlier this year. They sounded sympathetic. There was talk of exemptions for high unemployment areas, and welfare chief Eloise Anderson suggested the government might help people move.
ELOISE ANDERSON: We may need to help people go where the jobs are. If the jobs aren't in your county, you've got the capability to send them for the interview, doesn't mean you pack ‘em up and send ‘em there, but you may be able to at least send them for the interview, where you never were able to do that before, and if they pass the interview and get the job, it may be in everybody's best interest that we get ‘em some relocation money.
DEAN SHORES: It seems to me that the state officials, in part, are contradicting themselves. If you go to some of the seminars that they've held on welfare reform and they've spoke about moving people, but at the same time they want to keep families together. But if you separate the families and you move them out of the area, now you're losing that family support that you've had in the past.
JEFFREY KAYE: Just as many rural areas are struggling to meet the demands of welfare reform, urban regions with high unemployment have similar concerns. In California, counties as a group are asking for more money from the state to help ease the transition from welfare to work.