County Government Resents Bearing Safety Net's Burden
The wide gulf between poor residents and social welfare programs in San Diego County results from an ingrained political culture and a battle between the county and state that’s dragged on for decades.
Christine Hyatt is the face of the newly needy. Two years ago, she never imagined she’d apply for government aid. And she never knew the process would be so difficult.
In early 2008, she’d been promoted to a trainer at a hotel and casino near the Las Vegas Strip, her husband worked as a sushi chef and they were renting a new condo.
By the end of the year, everything had changed. Hyatt and her husband, Hudson, lost their jobs. They moved back to San Diego. Pregnant with her third child, she slept on a couch in her sister-in-law’s garage. He slept on the floor with their two toddler daughters.
Last spring, Hyatt landed a full-time job at an insurance company and her husband took a chef’s job at Jack’s in La Jolla. They found an apartment in Chula Vista and began to feel like things were getting better. Then, a few months later, it happened again. Hudson lost his job when the restaurant closed.
Without savings, they felt the effects right away. They let their phones get turned off so they could buy groceries. She hoped for leniency from the landlord on late rent checks. When they needed food, they relied on help from his mother and aunts.
A final notice from San Diego Gas & Electric announced in big red letters that she had 48 hours to pay her bill or her electricity would be turned off. She called and said she had $10 to her name and successfully begged for them to give her until the next paycheck.
Hyatt needed help. She applied for food stamps in October.
“It was hard for me to stomach,” the 27-year-old said. “It was ‘Me? Me?’ If it wasn’t for my kids I wouldn’t have done it.”
The county sent her a letter with an appointment time in the middle of a weekday. She couldn’t take time off from work, but the form offered a number for rescheduling. Hyatt called, leaving three phone numbers and a time and day that would work.
A second letter came, saying she missed her appointment and had to reschedule. She called again, but didn’t hear back. A final letter in December delivered the news that she’d been denied for failing to make her appointment. No mention of the phone calls.
Hyatt said she knows she needs to try again to get on food stamps but is reluctant.
“It’s so disheartening,” she said. “At first I was like, ‘Forget it.’ It’s pretty sad. It’s meant for people who are where we are right now.”
The math is simple: The county has faced a barrage of people applying for last-resort economic and medical aid, yet the resources deployed to put that aid in people’s hands have failed to keep pace.
That may seem inevitable during a recession that’s socked nearly everyone, from professionals to businesses to governments. But in San Diego County that reality is the result of an ingrained political culture and a complex battle between local and state government that’s dragged on for decades. It has left a gulf between residents and social welfare programs that is starker than in any other major California county.
San Diego County offers these numbers and blames the state:
- The county government expects to handle 71.4 percent more food stamps and family welfare cases in fiscal year 2010 than it did in 2002.
- At the same time, the county’s funding from the state and federal governments for those programs has increased just 17 percent because of the state’s decision to suspend its cost-of-doing-business increases in 2001.
- In response, the county has cut staff by 2.5 percent over that time.
- The county estimates the state shortchanged it $32.4 million in state and federal funds alone this year for running food stamps and family welfare, known as CalWORKs. The state issued the county $99.9 million in state and federal funding for those programs this year, according to the Health and Human Services Agency.
Counties statewide have experienced similar hits recently. But San Diego stands out.
It ranks at or near the bottom in enrolling eligible residents in social welfare programs among California’s 12 major counties and denies applicants for food stamps and welfare for families at a higher rate than any of its peers. The courts have twice in the last five years forced it to pay the medical bills of more of its poor, and its anti-fraud focus has tested constitutional privacy rights.
In the end, the situation boils down to this: The state obligates counties to run the programs, but it has made profound cuts to the funding the counties get, leaving them to find a way to keep the programs running. Here, the county’s five elected supervisors rebel against the idea of picking up the slack.
“We feel the state is a deadbeat,” Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said. “They say, ‘Oh, we’re giving you this program, aren’t you so happy? And here’s some money for about two years and then we’re going to take the money away but guess what? You still get to do the program.'”
Other counties have embraced the charge to be the safety net. San Diego hasn’t — even though it’s been forced by the court to provide aid.
David Janssen has seen life on both sides of that ideological divide. He served as San Diego County’s chief administrative officer until 1996, moving on to the same post in Los Angeles.
In San Diego, he said, county officials resented the state and tried to tighten eligibility rules to provide for fewer people if the state didn’t send enough money for a program.
“L.A. had exactly the opposite philosophy, that they were the provider of final resort — they provided as many services to as many people as they could,” Janssen said. “They believed that San Diego had chosen not to provide the services, for whatever reason.”
Resenting the State
San Diego County officials abruptly put poor residents on notice in 1991: We’re ending your health care coverage at midnight on March 19.
The state had cut back its funding for patients who have no other way to pay their medical bills two years earlier, leaving counties stuck with the tab. The county was fed up with spending its own money.
Advocates for the patients fought back, suing the county after receiving the notice. The county, in turn, sued the state, saying it was Sacramento’s responsibility.
The state had picked up the bill since the mid-1960s. But in 1989, the state cut funding, leading the county to issue the midnight deadline two years later.
The county did get some money back from the state, but it ended up with the responsibility. Today, county officials still resent that.
With that newfound responsibility and pressure from community members, the county committed in the late 1990s to funnel about $27 million a year from the landmark tobacco settlement to health care efforts, including expanding health care for the poor.
But that wasn’t enough. Residents sued again in 2005, arguing that the county’s $802 monthly income limit was too low, leaving scores of San Diego’s poor without access to vital health care. The courts agreed, forcing the county to raise its income limits to now nearly $1,500 and driving home whose responsibility it was to provide the care — the county’s.
The current supervisors have carried this legacy forward from previous boards, blaming the state for leaving the county in charge of its poor.
Janssen said the county’s fight is futile.
“Apart from everything that’s happened over 25 years — it’s a county obligation,” he said.
San Diego has historically received a low share of state tax money beyond just the social service funding. After the anti-tax Proposition 13 passed in 1978, San Diego County’s already low tax rate locked in low returns from the state, becoming one factor for how San Diego County receives state funding.
Only one county out of the state’s 12 largest received a smaller slice from the state for general purposes than San Diego, according to a study by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.
San Diego received $359 per capita in 2007, while Los Angeles got $451 and Sacramento $571.
“You ended up with Prop. 13. That undid any logical relationship between state funding and programs and it’s been a constant battle ever since,” Janssen said.
‘It’s Irrelevant to Them Who Paid What’
Some counties actively go above and beyond the bare minimum required by the state.
In Santa Clara County, officials say they prioritize spending extra local dollars to make sure their programs run smoothly.
Last year, Santa Clara spent $902,000 extra on CalWORKs and $565,000 extra on food stamps, said Will Lightbourne, director of Santa Clara’s social services agency. That’s on top of the $8.6 million and $1.5 million it is required to spend on the two programs.
The money went to paying worker salaries, overtime and training to deal with the flood of new applications.
“At the end of the day, the person who must not suffer is the client. It’s irrelevant to them who paid what,” Lightbourne said. “I can honestly say our board does not begrudge these services.”
Santa Clara isn’t alone. Counties such as San Francisco and Alameda have pitched in their own money, too, said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California.
San Diego County supervisors reject the notion of backfilling state cuts or spending more than the minimum required. They say it’s a matter of fiscal principle.
The current five supervisors say their decade-and-a-half tenure has corrected fiscal problems that previous boards created.
“The county was filled with some very compassionate souls and they weren’t getting basic business done,” Supervisor Ron Roberts said.
A Culture of Resistance
A few years ago, Roberts stumbled upon the fact that San Diego had the lowest food stamps enrollment in the country.
County supervisors have rebelled against picking up the slack left by the state of California’s funding cuts on social welfare programs. Photo: Sam Hodgson
He and Pam Slater-Price had begun looking for ways to combat childhood obesity and to address poor communities’ access to healthy food. Community members had a simple answer: Sign more people up for food stamps to give them more opportunities to buy healthy food.
But when Roberts began to push for more outreach to increase enrollment, he said the county’s Health and Human Services Agency officials were surprised.
They’d assumed the Board of Supervisors wouldn’t support spending money to tell more people about the program. They thought they were following the board’s direction to apply rigorous standards to applicants and to root out fraud, not to find new people who might qualify.
Those staff attitudes developed over time and need to change, Roberts said. “They were assuming that maybe a statement by one supervisor was speaking for the whole board.”
Roberts said he wasn’t thinking of one supervisor in particular. But it’s not hard to figure out where agency officials would’ve developed their sense of the board’s priorities.
When the five supervisors came to office in the 1990s, the county was buzzing over welfare fraud.
The district attorney had busted a massive fraud case early in the decade, charging a ring that included five former county employees with embezzling up to $1 million. It was the largest welfare fraud scheme in San Diego County history at the time.
In the mid-1990s, a national movement declared an end to welfare dependency, and San Diego County was a leader in pushing welfare recipients to get a job.
Supervisor Bill Horn said enrollment isn’t the way to judge the county’s welfare program.
“The success of the program is not how many people are on the program,” Horn said. The goal is to get people off the assistance, he said.
Bob Ross ran the county’s Health and Human Services Agency before he took the top post at a statewide health foundation, the California Endowment.
San Diego’s priorities are deeply rooted, he said.
“You have to understand the philosophical underpinnings first. This is a county that believes in limited government whose primary responsibly is public safety,” Ross said. “And health and human services has consistently taken a backseat to public safety in counties, in communities like San Diego, where public safety is strongly and deeply valued.”
Early one afternoon in October, the line to apply for food stamps and aid applications snaked around the lobby and out into a courtyard at a county center in Chula Vista. A young man sat on the floor, slumped against the lobby wall with his baby in a carrier beside him. A woman who left her five kids at home jostled for position in line. Conversations buzzed about lost jobs and the long waits. The lines shifted slowly forward.
They had to wait there for hours. Some were there for a second day in a row.
The scene in Chula Vista that day was the scene at the Oceanside center two weeks earlier, the scenes in El Cajon and Lemon Grove on the days in between. It is the scene repeated around the county amid a struggling economy.
The county acknowledges the long waits but said a new business model will increase efficiency.
It has contracted out to private companies, trained workers to manage more than one program and created a toll-free number for incoming calls.
“We manage to the funds that we have,” said Dale Fleming, a top official at the Health and Human Services Agency. “And if the funding isn’t enough, we try to change the way we do things so that we can increase our capacity to serve.”
Even advocates for the poor say at least one program is showing positive signs — food stamps. Last April, county supervisors approved a plan to increase its enrollment, offering nonprofits the most direct access to the county in years. Nearly 30,000 participants joined the program by the end of 2009.
“I’d rather have there be bumps in the road when we’re trying to improve things rather than not trying to improve things,” said John Lucero Criswell, executive director for the San Diego Hunger Coalition.
But the county’s capacity hasn’t increased enough to keep up with demand.
The county doesn’t process applications fast enough. Counties are required by federal law to process food stamps applications within 30 days.
San Diego County failed to meet the federal standard for more than four out of 10 applications each month for the first six months of 2009, according to the state Department of Social Services.
Melinda Battenburg, a spokeswoman for a local chapter of Service Employees International Union, said workers can feel the strain. Eligibility workers who used to see five to six clients a day now see more than eight. They used to spend more than an hour with each client, but now only have 45 minutes, she said.
The county says its new streamlining efforts will make the process more efficient.
But because of the county’s track record, advocates and regulators are watching.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded California’s food stamps enrollment was unacceptable. The agency has been more closely monitoring four counties, including San Diego.
Though participation is increasing, it’s unclear how much credit the county can take — and how much is a function of the recession increasing the need, said Dennis Stewart, who oversees California for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.
“I do want to reserve judgment, because process is valuable,” Stewart said, “but outcomes are better.”
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Photography By: Sam Hodgson
Graphics By: Sarah Johnson