What's at stake for SoCal's poor as federal budget talks begin

California's anti-poverty programs and agencies that combat homelessness are highly dependent on federal funds.
California's anti-poverty programs and agencies that combat homelessness are highly dependent on federal funds.

Much is at stake for Southern California's poor and working class as federal budget talks begin in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump has indicated he'd like to see big increases to military and infrastructure spending—and local officials are concerned those bumps could come at the cost of federally funded social safety net programs. 

"People are in a bit of a holding pattern, wait-and-see mode," said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. "There's a lot of uncertainty."

California's social safety net institutions are highly dependent on federal funds.

The California Department of Social Services gets about $29 billion annually in federal funding for programs like food stamps (CalFresh), cash welfare (CalWORKs), as well as foster care, social security, and in-home supportive services for disabled and elderly. Overall, the programs serve about 6.8 million Californians, said Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs for the department.

"These are programs that are providing critical, life-sustaining services to Californians that would be put at direct and immediate harm if those federal dollars go away," said California State Senator Holly Mitchell, chair of the senate's budget committee.

In the upcoming federal budget process, of which the president has limited control, Mitchell said California's public officials will continue to advocate for anti-poverty programs amidst rumored proposals for cuts.

"I'm convinced that Americans as a whole, across this nation, are going to communicate with their policy makers and talk about why these core functions of government are relied upon by millions of Americans," Mitchell said. "And why we think it's unfair of this administration at the federal level and Congress to even consider eliminating them."

Another potential point of impact is on L.A.'s effort to reduce homelessness.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority gets about 38 percent of its $139 million annual budget from federally dependent sources. Most of that comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other funds are tied to CalWORKs, California's welfare-to-work program, which is partially funded through the federal government and partially through the state. 

Those dollars pay for L.A.'s publicly funded homeless shelters, programs that provide individuals and families with temporary rental assistance, and hire nonprofits to provide services for formerly homeless to make sure they're successful in their new homes.

"We're extremely concerned about any potential action by the federal government that would reduce housing or safety-net programs that are critical to enabling homeless families and adults move into and retain permanent housing," said Phil Ansell, director of L.A. County's homeless initiative.

CalWORKs, for instance, is critical to keeping families from becoming homeless, he said. Section 8 housing vouchers are often a key ingredient to providing the life-long rental assistance that a chronically homeless person needs to stay housed long-term. And services, like health care and substance abuse treatment, are often funded through the Affordable Care Act.

Senderling-McDonald said any cuts could pile up on families dependent on multiple safety-net programs. 

"So much of this just affects children in such a significant way," she said. "A kid who is hungry is not going to pay attention in school, and a child who is ill is not prepared to learn."

The federal budget season is just beginning—a budget for the next fiscal year would need to pass by Sept. 30.