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County Social Welfare Programs

Audio

Aired 2/5/10

Our county's safety net for the poor sinks to the bottom of some charts. Is there resistance to helping the needy?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner and I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll look into how the County of San Diego is doing its job for the needy in our community, whether the strong mayor form of government should be made permanent in San Diego, and what Californians are thinking about the prospects for our state and our nation. The editors with me today are Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org. Andrew, welcome back.

ANDREW DONAHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Always good to see you, Gloria.

PENNER: Thank you. David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Glad you could join us, David.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Happy to be here. Thanks.

PENNER: And Barbara Bry, associate publisher and opinion editor of SDNN.com. Good to see you, Barbara.

BARBARA BRY (Associate Publiser/Opinion Editor, SDNN.com): Good morning, Gloria.

PENNER: Good morning. Our number, if you’d like to join us, is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. This week, voiceofsandiego.org ran a series of stories highly critical of the County of San Diego’s safety net for the poor. Certainly, the issue has been on the minds of many sectors of the community as the number of our neighbors living in poverty climbs to record levels. KPBS’ coverage of the problems of accessing government help when food is scarce and medical attention is too costly has been extensive. So, Andrew, your series started with a story about a diabetic who stopped seeing her doctor when she couldn’t afford health insurance anymore and she was denied help from County Medical Services. What was the point of that story?

DONAHUE: Wel, the point of the story, the woman’s name is Michele Quemuel. She, like you said, had lost her health insurance, wasn’t able to pay, sought a program with the County for people like her and basically she was denied. They said she made too much money a month and the limit was $800. She made something like $935 a month. Didn’t have healthcare, stopped going to the doctor. She ended up going blind. And a year later the courts found that the County’s income limits for this program were way too restrictive. They were $800; they’re now $1500. The courts have twice had to increase those limits, force the County to increase those limits. So what the story – We used that story to illustrate the fact that there are basically wide gaps between these state-mandated programs and the people for whom they are designed here in San Diego, and then that gap is actually quite starker here in San Diego than it is compared to any other major county in California.

PENNER: Well, I’m just wondering how—and I’ll ask you one more question about that article—how could it have happened that the San Diego County would have set the limits so much lower than is considered acceptable?

DONAHUE: Basically, the County has taken a stance that this is something the state has pushed on them, is making them do, and is not giving them any money to do, which is based in reality but the fact is, is that this is the County’s obligation. The County has fought tooth and nail to try to not provide it or try to put as low of amount of money as it can into the program.

PENNER: Let’s talk about that a little bit, David. The state mandates that the County provide food assistance, medical help, care and welfare, for those in need but in these days of budget cutbacks with every entity struggling, every jurisdiction struggling, why should the County be forced into paying for services that it’s saying that it doesn’t have enough money to pay for from the state?

ROLLAND: Well, it’s kind of interesting to put it in terms of being forced to care for people. County government is there essentially to care for people. You know, some counties see their role as simply passing on money from the state and federal government and just sort of divvying it up locally. But what I thought was good about the Voice of San Diego, their coverage, was, you know, they compared San Diego County with some other counties in terms of, yeah, the state’s struggling and because poor people don’t have lobbyists in expensive suits walking the halls of the legislature in Sacramento, you know, lots of counties are struggling in terms of providing these services but some counties are sort of taking it on themselves to put their own money to help fill the gaps. And I thought what was good about Voice of San Diego’s coverage is they are showing that San Diego is quite resistant to that.

DONAHUE: And I think an important point is that this was going on even when the economy was good, even when the county, you know, counties and states were getting a lot of money. So this isn’t something where the recession hit and all of a sudden the county doesn’t have money to do it, it’s – this has been a historical thing for decades and decades, the County has been fighting this in court, you know, on the ground, against the state, against, you know, the actual people who – for whom these programs are designed. And then the second part is the supervisors do make this argument, well, what do you want us to do, cut public safety or cut libraries? As if those are the only two options.

PENNER: What are the other options?

DONAHUE: I’ve got one simple option is that the – each county supervisor every year has a $2 million slush fund that they use to basically divvy out money in their communities to their supporters, to causes they like, things like, you know, a holiday dog parade on the beach, things like a big lobster dinner, things like the opera. I mean, the list goes on and on, trips to China. You know, the idea that we would have to somehow take police officers off the street or close libraries just to provide a basic level of care for our poor, I think, is false.

PENNER: Okay, well, let me ask our listeners about that. You’ve heard the beginning of this discussion and perhaps you’ve read the Voice of San Diego – voiceofsandiego.org series. I would like to have your assessment of how the County of San Diego is handling the escalating number of people who are poor, who have reached the poverty level and who need county assistance. Is that the role of the county and should the supervisors give up their lump sum, I guess, of $10 million that they give to charities and, I guess, not for profits, places of their choices in order to help pay for the needs of the poor? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Barbara, you’ve covered San Diego for a long time as a journalist, what about this idea of county government having historical resistance to providing social welfare programs?

BRY: Well, first of all, I’d like to commend Andy and Voice of San Diego for writing a phenomenal series that really brings to light an important issue. And, as Andy said, this is historic in San Diego and, you know, there have been studies done. You know, we pay less taxes per capita than any other major city in the state. This, you know, people in San Diego seem to want to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country and not necessarily pay what it really costs to live here. And the attitude of the supervisors is historic in terms of, you know, fighting paying, you know, for social services. And I think that the statistic that was most upsetting to me was that regarding food stamps. We have the lowest percentage of eligible people participating in the food stamp program of any major city, I think, in the country.

DONAHUE: In the country, yeah.

BRY: Not just in California.

DONAHUE: And that’s every year.

BRY: And that’s basic, that’s food. And also, if people could participate in the food stamp program, they would go out and spend money in stores buying food. I mean, so it’s a whole ripple effect. And it is so heartless, it’s unbelievable to me.

PENNER: Well, let me ask David – not David, Andrew about the data that you acquired. Where did this data come from that shows that San Diego is at the bottom of the tables?

DONAHUE: Sure. Well, we’ve had this idea, you know, there’s obviously been a lot written about this. CityBeat’s done some good work on it, the Union-Tribune had. What we’d seen was a lot of isolated stories and what we wanted to do was to try to understand are these isolated cases or is there a holistic issue here in San Diego? And we have a partnership with the Rose Institute, which is at Claremont McKenna College, and we basically went to them and said here’s what we want to know. We want a very comprehensive analysis of the services that the County of San Diego provides. They spent three months basically comparing San Diego County to the other 11 major counties in California and came back and showed that, you know, just a sample of these, San Diego County has the highest denial rates for food stamps, for welfare for family. It has the lowest enrollment rates for food stamps, among the lowest for welfare for families, for MediCal, which is a health coverage initiative. So all that data was taken from census reports and from other reports that have been done for awhile.

PENNER: A couple of questions on that just to sort of – for full disclosure. The study was funded by whom?

DONAHUE: The program that did the study is funded by our founder and our board chairman, Buzz Woolley, yeah.

PENNER: Okay. So, you know, is there a question about the fact that, you know, this was your story and your founder and board chairman is funding the study that gives you the data?

DONAHUE: I mean, he funds us. I don’t know what the problem there would be.

PENNER: Okay.

BRY: Yeah, I don’t – Gloria, I don’t see a problem, I think. And separately, the Jewish Community Foundation funded a study – the Leichtag Foundation funded a study that the Jewish Community Foundation did about hunger in San Diego and it was – it came out about two months ago, and it came to similar conclusions on – It only looked at hunger and food stamps; it didn’t look at all the broader issues. But it came to similar conclusions.

PENNER: Okay. Well, let’s move on now that we found out a little bit about this study. Were these graduate students, by the way who did the study?

DONAHUE: They were college students that were guided by fellows and the professors.

PENNER: Okay. Well, so at this point how are the supervisors responding to the fact—have you been following this, David?—to the fact that they’re at the bottom of some lists of the County’s records of providing social services?

ROLLAND: Oh, I sure have. It’s one of my favorite things to follow, actually because it’s appalling and I take some perverse entertainment out of appalling politicians’ comments. My favorite one was Dianne Jacob who said that our – my constituents don’t want me to go handing out more welfare checks. And I think that is – that summarizes the attitude of the Board of Supervisors.

PENNER: All five of them?

ROLLAND: As a group, collectively, I believe that that is the pervasive attitude. The pervasive attitude among the County Board of Supervisors is sheer contempt for people who don’t have money. It – They’re the leaders. It trickles down through the departments that that – those – that’s really the marching order. The County is not good at outreach to, you know, to reach these people and make sure that they are getting the benefits that they are eligible for.

PENNER: Barbara.

BRY: Gloria, these people are really insulated. First of all, once you seem to get elected supervisor in San Diego, you have it for life. I mean, there is going to probably be a ballot in June that will set term limits but, you know, that would still give each of the existing supervisors two more terms. And they get nice salaries, they get great benefits, they get great pensions and they seem to be able to do whatever they want.

ROLLAND: Just to be more specific, I think, you know, in – just in my view, I think Dianne Jacob and Bill Horn are the absolute worst. And I think, you know, it’s – there’s a continuum that goes down from there.

DONAHUE: Yeah, there are nuances. I mean, I think if you – we published excerpts of our interviews with each supervisor alongside the series and people like Ron Roberts and Greg Cox were acknowledging that there’s a problem and were saying that they actually wanted to do something about it. Now, you know, what actually happens out of that, I think, we’ll have to wait to judge on their actions. You know, somebody like Pam Slater-Price, probably a little bit in the middle. Dianne Jacob and then, you know, Bill Horn’s argument is that his dad didn’t even take the GI Bill so he’s not going to take – you know, he’s not very interested in anybody taking any government handouts.

PENNER: Okay. Well, we’re going to continue this conversation. We have much more to talk about as we take a look at the needy in San Diego and the way the County of San Diego is dealing with them. And you are welcome to call us at 1-888 – 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner, and I’m at the roundtable today with Barbara Bry of SDNN.com and Andrew Donohue from voiceofsandiego.org and from San Diego CityBeat, we have David Rolland. We’re talking about how the County of San Diego deals with the people here who need County help, who need food stamps, who need welfare, who need – or, CalWORKS, I guess it’s called now, and some help on medical, providing help in that area as well. And apparently, according to the study that was done by the voiceofsandiego.org and other studies that it’s not happening. It’s not happening sufficiently and we’re trying to find out why and whether that can be changed. So before we begin, let’s start with a phone call from Mike. Mike is with us and he is about to ask us his question. Go ahead, Mike.

MIKE (Caller, El Cajon): Yes, I worked for the County for 30 years starting in 1971 and this is a historical viewpoint of the board of supervisors. I think it’s worse now than it’s ever been. But they do everything they can to avoid their responsibilities to the needy of the county. I can remember a family that they tried to take off of welfare because they discovered that they thought they had a new car. And this was a couple that had 8 children and the new car that they saw parked in front of their house, that happened to be a neighbor’s car as it turned out, was a Volkswagen.

PENNER: Yeah.

MIKE: But they thought they could – they thought they had some way to get these people off of aid. And it cost the people a couple months of aid because of the investigation that had surrounded it. And it hasn’t changed any in 40 years.

PENNER: Oh, okay, so this historical resistance that you talked about, Andrew, in your series, is – this is what Mike’s talking about. Mike is from El Cajon, and thank you so much, Mike. What I’m curious about, David, is if you have a mindset at the level of the board of supervisors, does that filter down to the people who actually work with the people who are asking for assistance?

ROLLAND: Absolutely, it does.

PENNER: In what way?

ROLLAND: Well, you know, leadership starts from the top and it trickles down, like I was saying earlier. You know, what was – There was an interesting part in Part II of Voice’s series where—I think it was the second story—where a, I think it was Ron Roberts that was talking about, you know, he went and talked to the people who work with clients and saying, you know, why are we doing so poorly? And the person said, well, that was what we thought the direction from the board was, is to be vigilant, really, about, you know, fraud and that sort of thing rather than having the mandate be let’s get the most help to the most people possible, let’s be as distrustful and skeptical of people who come through our door as possible and so they put so much effort into anti-fraud without really having the evidence that fraud is widespread. The fraud from our own stories in CityBeat that Kelly Davis has written, fraud is a fairly low rate, you know, and they’re putting, you know, a disproportionate amount of effort into, you know, catching people.

PENNER: What it comes down to, I think, Barbara, is, is the anti-welfare culture so entrenched in the current board that it’s going to take a new board to effect a change? And is that going to happen?

BRY: Well, it probably will take a new board and I think a new board is a long time in coming. I think Ron Roberts is going to have a competitive race this time but he’s the only one I see having a competitive race in the near term unless…

PENNER: Well…

BRY: I’m interested in what Dave and Andy think.

PENNER: There’re only two seats up…

BRY: Yeah, right.

PENNER: …this time around, Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, and reading how their fundraising is going, it looks as though the two of them are managing to bring in quite a bit of money while their competition thus far has not.

DONAHUE: That’s the advantage that the incumbent supervisors always have. I think we’re going to possibly see the first competitive race in a very long time with Ron Roberts and some of that may depend on whether or not Donna Frye gets into the race. Bill Horn could have competition now, especially with some of his votes and actions on a massive proposed development in north county. However, anybody who’s running against him in that district is likely to have the same or similar views on social services.

BRY: Yeah, I think Donna, you know, even though Donna Frye has not yet said whether she will run against Ron Roberts, Lori Saldana is running. And if she can make it past June, you know, she’s going to have a lot of support from Democrats and Labor and money may not be as big an issue.

DONAHUE: I think that’s interesting – is do these policies actually reflect what San Diego is right now? I think that’s a fascinating question, is this may reflect perhaps what San Diego was like 15 years ago but we now have more registered Democrats in the entire county than we do Republicans and Ron Roberts is a Republican representing an urban district and these are the issues that are going to play in an urban district because of people’s personal politics, because of people’s personal lives, and Lori Saldana was already making social services an issue before this and I would imagine it would be a big deal in the race.

PENNER: Well…

ROLLAND: And I think…

PENNER: Final comment, David.

ROLLAND: Yeah, just really quickly, I think Greg Cox’s seat eventually will flip as well, and Andy’s absolutely right that the board is not reflective of San Diego County. Certainly, it’s going to be a lot harder to knock a Republican out of Bill Horn’s district or Dianne Jacob’s district but I believe, you know, eventually two of these seats will flip and there will probably be a swing seat in there somewhere and San Diego County really, rightfully, should sort of go back and forth between more, you know – should be fairly moderate between, you know, slightly left and slightly right, back and forth.

PENNER: This is the way it was in the eighties before the current board came in in the nineties. We did have several Democrats on the board of supervisors, including Jim Bates…

BRY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …and Leo – Leon…

DONAHUE: Williams.

PENNER: …William – Leon Williams, right. So, all right, let’s move on because we’re now talking politics and we may as well continue talking politics.

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