Jeff McDonald, U-T San Diego reporter
Bill Oswald, chair, Caring Council
Joni Halpern, director, Supportive Parents Information Network
Related Story: Problems Continue To Plague County Food Stamp System
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story on Midday Edition, a report commissioned by San Diego County has just confirmed what some local nonprofits have been saying for a long time. The county's food stamp administration needs a lot of improvement. From overcrowded phone lines to a mixed up intake procedure, the report outlines a number of failings. The county says it's committed to making improvements. I'd like to introduce my guests, Jeff McDonald is a reporter with UT San Diego. Welcome to the show.
MCDONALD: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Bill Oswald is the share of the caring foundation.
OSWALD: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Joni Halpern is director of supportive information network.
HALPERN: Thank you very much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Jeff, you did a story on the findings in the report commissioned by the county on the food stamp program.
MCDONALD: They commission said the report last year because the county has historically been under-enrolled in food stamps, and other safety net services. It found they don't have enough people answering the phones, and they don't have enough phone lineups to accommodate the volume of calls the agency receives.
CAVANAUGH: How long a wait to people have trying to get in have to sign up for or find out what's going on with their application?
MCDONALD: Well, that's assuming you get approved at all. Once you get through, you can expect to wait 30 plus minutes, and the folks that do get through, they don't always get through to a live person. So sometimes is the answer.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Does the current system actually hang up on people or do people hang up?
MCDONALD: No, the majority of the people get hung up on on the machine that answers the phone, due to the high volume of calls their call cannot be answered at that time.
CAVANAUGH: The report found problems when people actually go to the health and human services, didn't it?
MCDONALD: Yes, this has been I historic problem. Long lines, people aren't allowed to eat while they're waiting. These can take three, four, five hours. If you're in the bathroom when your name is called, you lose your spot, and you have to come back another day, which is problematic:
CAVANAUGH: Do we know how much it costs the county?
MCDONALD: They told me $71,000 and change.
CAVANAUGH: How is the county taking this information?
MCDONALD: Well, they did sigh they implemented a number of recommendations. They've heard from nonprofit providers like Joni and Bill. The majority of those have already implemented. They're down to a handful, ten or 12, recommendations from the report that they need more time to implement. But they did commit to adopting all of the recommendations.
CAVANAUGH: We asked someone from the health and human services to be on our program, no one was able to do that. However, they sent a statement from Nick match I don't know, director of the health and human services, it reads the county has maintained program integrity, and served over half a million eligible people in public assistance programs. In cal fresh alone, participation has doubled since 2008. We're committed to pursuing that path. And the full statement is on our website. When you spoke with the people at the county, Jeff, did they explain how they're planning to implement the changes recommended in this report?
MCDONALD: They have some money set aside to pay for the improvements that are recommended, things like scanning machines at the resource centers where you apply for services. People lose paperwork all the time. That's been a recurring problem. If you make investments in technologies like scanning machines they help to reduce some of the redundancy. The problem is that the county has heard these complaints if are years. Hopefully this report is the impetus they need to follow through.
CAVANAUGH: Bill Oswald is the chair of the caring council. And I'm looking through this report to the county. Do some of these recommendations mirror what you and other agencies have previously suggested?
OSWALD: Oh, very much so. Particularly, they speak to what appears to be failure for Hong term planning by the county to just come up with solutions and not figure out whether the ones that work or not or evaluate them at all. But also there are some recommendations around cleaning up the family resource centers, and clearly the staff issue. We've been pounding on that since we started. The county does not extend the resources that it takes to do the job.
CAVANAUGH: Correct me if I'm wrong, the demand or requests for food stamps by eligible people have gone up dramatically, when, actually, are the staff has gone down?
OSWALD: Exactly, exactly. And the county, I think rightfully so, claims pride in the increase in enrollment, but there's no evidence they increased their participation rate. So the latest estimates had them at about 40%, which is significantly below the national average.
CAVANAUGH: We spoke with a chairman of the county board of supervisors, Ron Roberts, earlier this week. Here's what he said.
NEW SPEAKER: I'm pleased to say that in the last two years we've increased our food stamps here in San Diego by 65%. We've hired a lot of new staff, we've brought new systems online. We're able to do things.
CAVANAUGH: Does that mirror the experience? There is truth to that, the participation, the enrollment rate has gone up dramatically.
OSWALD: Indeed it has. But the question for us is, are they just responding to increased demand or are they actually increasing their rate of participation.
CAVANAUGH: What's the difference?
OSWALD: Well, if --
CAVANAUGH: You would think if somebody enrolled they would participate, right?
OSWALD: But there are by estimates as many as 60% of the people in San Diego County who fit the eligibility requirements don't want get food stamps. So our focus has been to increase the participation rate, not just the enrollment. The economy is driving the enrollment. The county's policies are suppressing the participation rate.
CAVANAUGH: So the percentage of people who could qualify for food isn't significantly up even though perhaps the numbers of the people who are on the program are up.
OSWALD: That's our research.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the proposal you made before the social research advisory board this morning.
OSWALD: We'd like to see them evaluate of the one of the things we see with the county, they have done a lot. Ron Roberts is right. They've never stopped to study the problem well enough to know how to fix it. But they put in fixes and then move on. So even with all of this change, I can say, and Joni will validate that even better, we're not seeing the change on the ground. There's still long lines, the resource centers are taking eight hours, you heard what Jeff said about the access line. If I'm a complaint who needs help, I have very little chance to talk to someone. And most of the people who are on cal works or food stamps, if they're using a phone, it's probably a pay-as-you-go phone because they can't afford a land line. That makes it almost impossible. While it is focus is on food stamps, this problem is not limited to food stamps. It's probably worse for people who are on cal works and Medi-Cal.
CAVANAUGH: Joni Halpern, you're nodding about all of this. What's been your experience as these changes are slowly implemented by the county? Do you see that they're having any kind of a significant impact?
HALPERN: I'd like to say yes because I appreciate the fact they've increased the number of persons who get food stamps, but I can't. Because the process is exactly the same. It's hugely burdensome, it's terribly shaming, it's uncomfortable, it's almost impossible to get through without an advocate. If the numbers have increased, we have the advocacy organizations trying to work hard to Sheppard these individual applications through a voter thorny process.
CAVANAUGH: One of the humiliating aspects of signing up for the cal fresh program has been eliminated, I believe, in January. The need to take fingerprints of the applicants. The county waived that requirement. What else about the program is shaming in your estimation?
HALPERN: I'll talk about three areas that I think contribute to this feeling of shame. Let's start at the top. The national dialogue reflects a pejorative view of people who are in need. It doesn't matter what happened to them, whether they lost their job or they're suffering from this global economy. No matter what it is, there's always some was in the national dialogue about fault. That makes it hard for people to admit they need food and to go get it. The second thing is, when you go into a family resource center, a welfare office, it's just terribly difficult to sit through that. You go in -- it's taken me sometimes with a client two hours to get into the bell, just to get into the building. I meet clients sometimes at 6:30áAM outside the El Cajon welfare office, and it takes two hours to get into the building. The workers are trying to be nice, but you come back the next day, you sit and, you wait, and you begin to understand that you are a recipient of a failing system. And I don't think we've heard enough from people who understand that poverty is a function of economies when they're not working well, and it happens to people, and it's outside of their control. Most of the people I see are people who lost hours, jobs, everything, and they're not at fault for being poor.
CAVANAUGH: After hearing that from Joni on a national level and down here in San Diego, it's something of an irony another thing that was included in your article that San Diego's invasions in the food stamp program are being noticed around the state?
MCDONALD: I was surprised to hear that as well. But good for them, if in fact it's true. I have no reason to doubt it. They just received know award last year for their innovations in food stamp delivery from the advocates. So good for them. I hope it's true. I hope that translates to, you know, more services for people in need. Up in the bay area, they contacted the San Diego County folks to get ideas on what San Diego is doing right. And according to Mr. Match I don't know, his staff is hosting a Webinar later this week, taking their counterparts in the bay area on various shortcuts to deliver these services. I included that because I think it's important and I hope it works. Clearly, the system could use some improvement.
CAVANAUGH: Lori is calling from Clairemont. Welcome to the program. Lori, are you with us? Lori is probably -- maybe thinks this is a food stamp call and we've hung up on her or something!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: What she wanted to talk about is that food stamps are a good tool for economic stimulation.
CAVANAUGH: Is that a concept that has gotten to our county leaders, do you think, in your experience, Bill?
OSWALD: Well, that's a tough question. I haven't seen it in their consciousness. We know for example, the county only pays 15% of the administration fee to food stamps, and the money for food stamps comes directly from the federal government. So it actually costs the county. And the legislative analyst's office last year indicated that the county loses money by not giving more food stamps because of the loss in tax revenue that it inoccurs because 60% of the people don't get it. There's an estimate that every dollar in food stamps produces about a dollar 84 in economic activity. That would be over $300ámillion.
CAVANAUGH: Jeff, include included in this report that we've been talking about is a suggested time line of improvements to the food stamp system. Has the county agreed to that?
MCDONALD: I'm not sure about officially or in writing. It's up to the county supervisors. They've agreed, Mr. Match I don't know committed to me when we spoke that they've agreed to the recommendations and the time line spells out about a 15-month process. I told him I'd be looking forward to speaking to him from a year from now when progress can be measured.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Jeff McDonald, Bill Oswald, and Joni halbern, and thank you all.
HALPERN: Thank you. Thank you.
MCDONALD: You're very welcome. Thank you.