Time Limits on General Assistance:
Prescription For Disease, Deprivation and Death
TERRY MESSMAN / Street Spirit v.14, n.5, 1May2008
The Public Health Department called for income support for the poor as a matter of life and death. The timing of the report was spectacularly bad for the Board of Supervisors' plan to amputate General Assistance.
A man sleeps on a park bench by Oakland City Hall. Alameda County has abandoned thousands of poor people.
Alameda County Supervisors plan to bail out of their moral and legal responsibility to provide for the poor. Their plan for time limits on General Assistance will abandon thousands of already impoverished people to homelessness and hunger.
Their appalling proposal to slash the already miserly General Assistance benefits by eliminating them altogether for six months of the year cannot be called a responsible attempt to balance the budget.
Rather, it is a reckless maneuver that would jeopardize the very survival of thousands of the county's poorest residents by leaving them penniless and destitute for six endless months at a time.
At present, about 8,510 GA recipients in Alameda County receive $336 a month and are forced to survive on that small amount. The new proposal cuts off that income entirely for "employable" GA recipients. They will begin losing their benefits at the end of June, 2008.
Imagine trying to survive for six months after your income was completely eliminated. That's what GA recipients will face on July 1, 2008, when the first people will be cast to the winds. Forcing the poorest Alameda County residents to live for 180 days without any income at all will cause unimaginable anguish, desperation and deprivation.
If the supervisors carry out their assault on General Assistance, they could literally cause death by unnatural causes.
That's the title — and the stark warning — of a report released on April 17 by the Alameda County Public Health Department.
The report is entitled, "Life and Death from Unnatural Causes: Health and Social Inequity in Alameda County." It is grim reading for the Board of Supervisors.
The Public Health Department warns: "Certain groups of people in Alameda County are getting sick and dying prematurely of unnatural causes."
As the report describes in shocking detail, poverty in Alameda County directly leads to premature deaths from increased levels of disease, poor nutrition, lack of housing, higher degrees of stress, and toxic environments.
The Alameda County Public Health Department's report warns: "A just society does not consign whole populations to foreshortened and sicker lives based on skin color and bank account size."
That eloquent warning has been recklessly cast aside by the Board of Supervisors. Their plan to eliminate General Assistance for half of the year would, in fact, consign thousands of poor people to "foreshortened and sicker lives."
Those groups of people dying of poverty and poor health in our affluent society are the very same people that the Board of Supervisors would bring to ruin and despair with their plan to cut GA.
Those with no bank accounts, home-less people, and poor African Americans and Latinos have been targeted by Alameda County officials at the precise moment that their own public health officials have meticulously documented the deadly consequences of this policy.
The timing of the release of the health department's report was spectacularly bad for the Board of Supervisors and their plan to amputate General Assistance.
One arm of the county, the Public Health Department, released a report on April 17 warning that poverty in Alameda County is causing disease and premature death, and that it is crucial to increase the incomes of poor county residents.
Almost unbelievably, only 11 days later, on April 28, another arm of the county, the Board of Supervisors, held a public hearing to report on their plan to entirely eliminate the income of the poorest people for six months of each year.
The report by the Public Health Department admonishes Alameda County officials to take urgent action to improve the health and help prolong the lives of its poorest residents. One of their key prescriptions for saving the lives of poor people is that Alameda County "must raise incomes of the poor" and "increase their enrollment in income support programs."
Despite this clear warning from Alameda County's health officials that income support programs like General Assistance are literally of life-and-death importance for the survival of the poor, the Board of Supervisors irresponsibly champions exactly the opposite approach, by cutting off income support completely.
This is a staggering betrayal of the public, and a disgraceful dereliction of duty.
Attorneys and social service providers who have worked with homeless people for decades are sounding the same alarm.
At a meeting on the proposed GA cuts convened by the East Bay Community Law Center and the Homeless Action Center on April 15, attorney Ed Barnes said bluntly, "People are going to die from this proposal." An activist from Poor Magazine, Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), said, "This is a deadly proposal. We're talking about a proposal that will eventually cause poor people to die."
On April 28, nearly 200 people protested the proposed GA time limits outside the Alameda County Administration Building, then went inside and filled the Board of Supervisors chambers to denounce the pro-posed cutbacks. GA recipients, homeless people, attorneys, activists, faith leaders and homeless service providers testified before Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker and Supervisor Gail Steele of the Alameda County Social Services Committee.
Attorneys warned that few GA recipients are truly employable, despite the claims of County officials, and fewer still can find and hold jobs. Therefore, GA time limits are misguided and harmful.
A report by Elizabeth Graber of the Public Interest Law Project analyzed the
impact of GA time limits in past instances. Graber's careful analysis shows how
hunger, homelessness, and health ailments increased as GA time limits took
effect. Only a minority of former recipients were able to find anything
resembling traditional employment. Instead, people suffered from the loss of
housing, food and health care. [See Graber's full report on page 2 of this
If the Board of Supervisors acts to slash this crucial component of the safety net, Alameda County will save money — for a short time. Soon, though, the full cost of this mistake will come back to haunt them.
More county residents will end up in homeless shelters. More people will end up in expensive hospital emergency rooms. In desperation, some will be forced to turn to crime just to survive, and will wind up in the very costly housing of jail. Others, reduced to anguish and insecurity by these cuts, will be housed in highly expensive psychiatric wards.
Alameda County officials propose an amputation of benefits that will reduce people to subhuman kinds of poverty, hunger and desperation.
It is not accurate to call this welfare reform. Rather, it's a deliberate act of inhumanity. It will ruin people's lives. It will reduce many to misery. It will destroy the health of countless others. It is a cruel blow to their very efforts to survive.
And, as Alameda County's own Public Health Department predicted, it will cause people to die.
Street Spirit is published by the
American Friends Service Committee. The vendor program is run by Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency.
Editor, Layout: Terry Messman
Contributors: Jeremy Alderson, Claire J. Baker, Kathryn Bigelow, Jack Bragen, Katie Burke, Jonathan Burstein, Lynda Carson, Janny Castillo, Dick Corten, B.N. Duncan, Randy Fingland, Lydia Gans, Nate Gartrell, Elizabeth Graber, Tammy Grubbs, Maureen Hartmann, Carol Harvey, T.J. Johnston, Judy Jones, Tom Lowe, Josh MacPhee, Sue Ellen Pector, People's Park website: http://www.peoplespark.org, Mike Rhodes, Husayn Sayfuddiyn, Holly Sklar, Robert L. Terrell, TJ Walkup, George Wynn
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