Holes In S.D. County Safety Net?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
We talk to voiceofsandiego.org reporters Kelly Bennett and Dagny Salas about their reporting series, "Out Of Reach" and discuss San Diego County's safety net for the poor.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): As the lines at the Food Banks began to swell last year, we kept hearing from community organizations that many people who were entitled to receive food stamps in San Diego weren't getting them. Then, during our shows on hunger in San Diego, we heard from callers who told us their stories of how difficult it was to apply for assistance from the county. Now, the Voice of San Diego has published two lengthy reports which seem to document claims that San Diego County is lax in providing mandated social services to low-income residents. And the reports also show how these tears in the safety net affect the lives of real people, our neighbors, struggling to get by here in San Diego. I’d like to welcome my guests, reporters Kelly Bennett and Dagny Salas of voiceofsandiego.org. They worked together on a special report called “Out of Reach.” Kelly and Dagny, welcome.
KELLY BENNETT (Reporter, voiceofsandiego.org): Good morning.
DAGNY SALAS (Reporter, voiceofsandiego.org): Thank you. Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to tell everyone, later in the show we will hear from Dale Fleming, Director of Strategic Planning and Operational Support for San Diego County Health and Human Services. Kelly, when you began working on this series, what is it that you wanted to find out?
BENNETT: Well, a lot of the things that we had noticed from you guys and from the Union-Tribune and from CityBeat and from all of the folks who had been covering, really, the issues of quality of life in San Diego, and we had noticed sort of this what looked to be a pattern about we knew that the enrollments in food stamps were some of the lowest in the country. We knew that there had been various class action lawsuits challenging the County of San Diego’s provision of these services. So there were these elements out there that kind of caught headlines or caught some attention when the report or the lawsuits or whatever would be released. We weren’t sure how far this extended, if this was a larger pattern. And so we kind of kept, you know, had a couple of file folders that we kept things in and over the last couple of years and then a partnership that we had with some students, some political science students and some researchers who are very experienced with census data and all sorts of, you know, modeling and that kind of statistics, they actually crunched some numbers for San Diego County versus 11 of the other largest counties in the state. So that allowed us to see how far does this pattern extend? Is this something that San Diego – you know, are the lines out the door at all of the counties in the state right now during the recession? Sure. But does San Diego County have a better or a worse reputation and track record in providing the services that the state has said, counties, this is your responsibility to run these programs for people who are in need.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly, tell us a little bit more of the number crunchers you say you worked with. How did you actually compile this data?
BENNETT: Well, what ended up happening was a really interesting partnership, a fun partnership for me as a reporter where we worked and were in touch with some students who were sort of separately from us calling counties and getting all of the data from the state and looking at a number of the different official records that counties have to provide to the state. They produced a full report that doesn’t just talk about these services, that talks about fire protection, talks about public safety, talks about all the other things that the counties – or many of the other things that counties do and compares and sort of sees how San Diego stacks up. When they completed their research late – or, early last fall, we were then able to take that research and say, okay, we’ve got numbers showing that San Diego, out of all of these 12 counties, is at or near the bottom of the heap in providing some of these social services, which was one aspect of their report. You know, what does that mean? Does that mean that there are people falling through? Does that mean that there are cracks or holes in the safety net that are greater or are starker than other places in the state? And we were able to then do some more data crunching ourselves as well as some interviews with folks all around the county, whether it was advocates or officials or people actually in line trying to get this aid to see, you know, what does this – what do these programs look like in San Diego County bolstered by the sense that we had comparatively it’s worse here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, yes, Dagny tell me a little bit more about that. How does San Diego compare with other counties in the state of California in terms of its provision of social services?
SALAS: Well, we went – last fall, we went to a bunch of different county centers and we went to go see, you know, to actually see the people that were out, you know, in the line and out the door and that sort of thing. As they compare to other places as well, some other places actually find that, you know, it doesn’t matter who pays for it in the end, these people are still suffering. Someone I spoke to in Santa Clara talked a lot about that, about how they put in some extra money, that’s their priority to actually try and provide these programs at a higher level.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Kelly, in your report, your series found that county government in San Diego, you say, has an historical resistance to provide social service programs. How were you able to trace this?
BENNETT: Well, it’s an interesting thing. You know, we read a lot of sort of old stories about the time in the early nineties before the five current elected supervisors got into office. And, clearly, things were different. There was a completely different tone for the welfare system. Now it’s called CalWORKS and one chief aspect of it is helping somebody who doesn’t have a job or has a low paying job transition with vocational training or with education into a higher paying job. So at that time, though, there was this huge push against welfare dependency and this idea that nationwide there were people on welfare who’d been – there was kind of this buzz about people who were kind of on the government dole, you know, and so the current supervisors, many of them, ran on this sort of welfare overhaul, this is county, this is sucking a lot of county dollars, and we’ve got to really clean this up. And so San Diego, in that era, the supervisors who are still in office now, a lot of them, were running on this premise of welfare overhaul as well as this concept that these services were the state’s responsibility and however much money the state sends, we’ll put that toward the program but not a penny more. Well, that’s, you know, there are many counties in the state that operate that way but what is stark here is that San Diego’s attitude – these attitudes that say – where essentially somebody that I had talked to who’d been a former professor of social work at San Diego State, who’s now in Virginia, said a lot of places in the country have tried this model of essentially rationing these social services to cut down on costs and, he said, San Diego has perfected it, that there’s this idea that the fewer – obviously, the fewer services you provide, the less it’s going to cost you. And governments everywhere are trying to divvy up this pie and figure out, you know, what can we put toward public safety and what can we put toward the other things that we’re responsible for. None of us is saying it’s easy but there are clear priorities that have developed over time away from prioritizing these programs and away from prioritizing, you know, we’re talking about food stamps, we’re talking about welfare, we’re talking about medical care for people who have no other option. And this county has a track record, comparatively and over time, of really not wanting to prioritize these programs.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Kelly Bennett and Dagny Salas and we’re talking about a series, two articles, a special report, “Out of Reach,” about San Diego County and its – how it services its social welfare programs. We did speak with Dale Fleming yesterday, Director of Strategic Planning and Operational Support for San Diego County Health and Human Services. She told us a variety of services constitute the County’s social safety net, including Access, CalWORKS, a cash assistance program for immigrants, county medical services, the food stamp program, general relief, Healthy San Diego and MediCal. Now I asked her about the county’s handling of these social service programs. Dale, over the last several years, the county board of supervisors has come under criticism for its policies on social welfare services and they say that they’ve made changes. Since your office is in charge of implementing those changes, I wonder if you could tell us what changes you’ve seen?
DALE FLEMING (Director of Strategic Planning and Operational Support, San Diego County Health and Human Services): Well, we did have a huge change in that the board took an interest two or three years ago in giving the agency – in 2006, it was like a call to action in the childhood obesity area, and included in that was calling on the county to do more in the area of food stamps and food assistance. And that was followed up by a board letter a few years ago that was sponsored by Supervisor Roberts and Slater-Price, and they were asking staff to look at ways that we could increase/expand food stamps. And finally last year, April 21, the board adopted the Nutrition Security Plan which not only looks at food stamp processing, asking us to do a better job there and, in fact, charging us to do a better job with the processing the applications but reaching out more with the public, reaching in to other county departments to look for eligible populations there, and also looking at basic access to nutritious foods, so it’s looking at, you know, the public health model of making sure that they have access to the nutritious foods, fruits and vegetables, that everyone can access them, that there are merchants that are selling it, that we have farmers markets and so forth, and then really doing a good job on outreach in education to bring people in and once we have the folks in to do a better job at processing those applications. So it was kind of a thorough, comprehensive look. And in touching on just the food stamp program, it’s going to touch all of the programs, particularly the process improvements because you can’t improve one program without touching the others.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, did they give you goals to aim at to – by how much to increase the food stamp participation?
FLEMING: Absolutely. They targeted the most – the neediest or I should say the most vulnerable populations and asked us to enroll 50,000 kids and seniors by 2012. And in doing so, when you enroll kids, you bring in their parents, so it’s got that kind of ripple effect. And if seniors are part of a larger household, you’ll bring those household members in as well. But targeting the messages for children and seniors and bringing those folks in.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have any numbers on how well you’ve done so far in increasing those numbers?
FLEMING: Yes, we have – let’s see, we’ve increased by a little over 40% since that time. We’ve achieved more of an – a little over 40% of our goal and so we have 167,000 recipients overall and kids, we have over 100,000 kids and about 4800 seniors.
CAVANAUGH: Now – Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
FLEMING: So we’ve added 21,000 kids and seniors since last April.
CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in your answer about food stamp participation, how increasing that kind of increases all the participants – the participation of all social services. I wonder how food stamp participation increases like healthcare participation for low income people in the county.
FLEMING: Well, we can send out more than one message at a time so often people who don’t have enough food on the table, we can also deliver the message about healthcare. But what I really meant was when we improve processing of applications for food stamps, those same processes are the ones that we use to process applications for the other programs. So naturally when we improve the process for food stamps, we improve the processes for MediCal and CalWORKS, and that’s our aim. So for example, one thing that we’ve done is to take all of our paper files—we had like a forest worth of paper that we deal with, that includes all of the information and history and background on the individual families and households that are applying for these benefits—all of those have been imaged and turned into electronic files, and we’ve done that for all of the programs. And what that will do is allow folks to eventually, when we get our processes together, we know that people will be able to go to any office to be served, they can be served by any individual within an office, because everyone will be able to access the information that they need to accomplish whatever that process is, and rather than relying on one person for everything. So that’s something that we think will improve customer service and speed up processing time so that folks don’t have to stay in the office waiting for an individual. Anyone can serve them.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder what increases in funding, if any, your department has received?
FLEMING: Well, they – we do receive some adjustments for caseload growth but over time, the way that they pay us is based on 2001-02 dollars. And so, you know, in other words, they’re not keeping up with our costs but they’re paying us for more units at that lower rate. So we did get some slight increase and food stamps, we did get a sizable increase in MediCal and we’re trying to work within those means. It’s still not enough. Because of the recession, the economy, we’re seeing pretty large numbers coming in the front door and so that’s what’s really driving our process changes as well because we’re trying to be as efficient as we can and live within our means but address, you know, meet the needs of the folks that are coming in.
CAVANAUGH: Dale, when you read reports that say that San Diego County has the lowest enrollment rates for social service programs, some in the country and some among other similar sized counties in California, what is your reaction? Why do you think that is?
FLEMING: It’s very frustrating. When I look at the data in terms of our growth and our lack of growth in the participation rate, when we implemented welfare reform about a decade ago, we were very fast in getting – putting people to work. The economy was hot and when people went to work, I don’t think we did a good job at describing to them other benefits that were available to them. And the food stamp population, this would be the CalWORKS population that walked out of the door, they didn’t stay around to get food stamps. They could have received food stamps. And so I think we didn’t do as good a job as we needed to back then. So we lost some ground then and we were slow to pick up steam since then. And what we’ve been doing in the last couple of years is working more with community to identify, you know, making better partnerships, better decisions, working together to try and outreach and involve the community and getting the word out about food stamps. You know, working with schools, working with partners like the San Diego Hunger Coalition and San Diego Food Bank to really try to break down the barriers and the misinformation. Also the fact that we’re near the border and there are, you know, concerns about who is and isn’t eligible and, you know, what that means for their future eligibility for citizenship, so we’re trying to break down those rumors and get the facts out there. When, in fact, children of undocumented immigrants are eligible, we have folks that – it doesn’t – they can choose not to get food stamps if they want to so there are different ways to address those but it’s all about education, outreach, and really relying on our community who already have those trusting and nurturing relationships with folks to get the word out.
CAVANAUGH: If you succeed in your outreach and you bring in more people to the food stamps – food stamp rolls, the federal government will reimburse the county but it might take a little initial outlay from the county in order to accomplish that outreach. Have you suggested to the board of supervisors that you might want to make that initial investment in getting more people on the rolls and then be compensated on the backend?
FLEMING: Well, the compensation on the backend dips quite a bit when you don’t have state allocation involved. So, in other words, even if the federal government reimbursed, it would not be 100%, it would be a 50% reimbursement where right not our outlay is about 15% of the total cost. So it would be a longterm investment. It would not be recouped, and it could be at the risk to other programs and services that the board is responsible for because they do have responsibility for a wide range of programs and services including child welfare and in-home supportive services for homebound seniors and disabled. So the problem is who takes precedent? And so what we’ve been focusing on really is trying to get better and improve and have smart relationships with the community and live within our means to, you know, give people alternate pathways to get on the benefit when they’re eligible and maintain that and using this taxpayer dollars (sic) very wisely.
CAVANAUGH: Dale, thank you very much.
FLEMING: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: That was Dale Fleming, Director of Strategic Planning and Operational Support for San Diego County Health and Human Services. We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll get reaction from Voice of San Diego reporters Kelly Bennett and Dagny Salas. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m back with reporters Kelly Bennett and Dagny Salas of voiceofsandiego.org. We’re talking about their special report called “Out of Reach,” about San Diego’s social services network that found, among other things, that San Diego County has among the lowest enrollments for food stamps and welfare for families in MediCal, the highest denial rates and dwindling funding. And I want to get, if I can, Kelly or Dagny, your response briefly, if you would, to what we just heard from Dale Fleming with the County.
BENNETT: Yeah, Dale pointed out that the County, under this new plan that they passed, that the supervisors passed last April, have increased their participation by – they’ve caught about 40% of their goal for enrolling more kids and seniors in food stamps. And advocates everywhere, people who’ve been critical of the County for years are saying, you know, they’re excited about this, even the USDA, which is the federal agency that oversees food stamps. The guy who oversees California for that program says he’s encouraged by the County’s move to really turn some of this – these enrollment numbers around. But, he’s saying, and several people are saying, it’s too early to tell if the County’s – if the ground that the County has gained in this participation has kept pace with the swelling numbers of people who, because of the recession, have lost their jobs, have lost their homes, have lost the things that, you know, that would have kept them out of qualifying for food stamps two years ago and now they fit under that eligibility. So as the pool has grown, has the participation under the County’s new plan grown enough to make it so that our percentage doesn’t stay the same, that it actually, you know, that we’re actually covering more of the people who are eligible for the program.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to welcome someone who has actually had to deal with the County’s program in person. Christine Hyatt called KPBS a while ago to tell us about her problems applying for food stamps and her story appears in the Voice of San Diego report. Christine, good morning. Thank you for being with us. Christine, are you there? Okay, we’ll try to check back and see if Christine can join us a little later. Dagny, I wanted to talk to you because I know that as part of your reporting, you visited food stamp offices. You described what it was like. What struck you most about being in the office here in San Diego?
SALAS: Well, last fall I visited a number of offices all over the county, north county, east county, south county, and I was just struck by how similar the image – the, you know, what I found in all the different places in the county were. There were long lines. There were people waiting for several hours, people waiting for more than one day in a row. And it was just striking to talk to them and say, you know, what are you, you know, what has brought you here today? And what have you been going through as you try and apply? You know, what’s your situation like? And it was – that was pretty telling.
CAVANAUGH: And what are some of the stories you heard from the people on line?
SALAS: They were – I remember very specifically people who were saying, you know, I lost my job, I had a job until recently, until a couple of months ago, you know, family’s been helping but, you know, it’s not enough. Or, you know, my husband lost his job or I have several children. And, you know, there were people in line with children, people saying I need, you know, food for my children. Or, you know, my son, something, you know, he broke his arm or something, you know, things like that. There were just a lot of different stories like that about people needing help and people waiting.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Christine Hyatt is now on the line and she has been one of those people waiting, actually applying for food stamps in San Diego County. Christine, thank you for joining us today.
CHRISTINE HYATT (Food Stamp Applicant): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Can you just recap why – what brought you to applying for food stamps in San Diego County?
HYATT: Just a series of unfortunate events that had befallen me and my family and it actually hadn’t occurred to me to try to apply for it until my mother-in-law suggested, you know, maybe you guys can apply, maybe you qualify for it now. We had previously not qualified due to our income level but when my husband lost his job then we decided, you know, it was time to try to get that assistance.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, your story is described in the Voice of San Diego report as a story that’s perhaps typical of the newer group of people who are needing assistance in San Diego County. You lost – you and your husband lost jobs from the recession and you were moving around with your family because you couldn’t make the rent so I’m asking, Christine, what was it like, for the rest of us who have been fortunate enough not to have to apply for food stamps in San Diego County, what was your experience like when you applied?
HYATT: Oh, for me it was disheartening. First of all, it comes as a shock that you’re even applying. My husband and I, going back a year back, would never have thought that we would be the type of people to apply for food stamps. There’s such a stigma associated with that. And when I did apply for food stamps, I just mentally was not prepared for all the obstacles that I have incurred up until this point. We still haven’t been in to see anybody to see if we even qualify to get this benefit, which is supposed to be for people like us.
CAVANAUGH: And how long have you been trying to get an appointment?
HYATT: Well, I initially applied back in October and what happened was I sent it by mail, which I believe is no longer available on the County website. But initially I sent it by mail. I didn’t receive a response until a month later stating I had an appointment, which was two days after I had received the letter, which I could not make. It was during one of the days I was working and I am the sole income for my family. I tried to reschedule several times. Several times the voice mail was full that they tell you to call to reschedule. I received a letter at the end of November stating that I needed to come in or else they would deny me. I tried again to reschedule. And then December, I received my denial letter. No one had ever tried to contact me.
CAVANAUGH: And you…
HYATT: And so we’re – Sorry. Go ahead.
CAVANAUGH: Go ahead. I was just going to say what I understand is you were denied because they say you didn’t make the appointment even though you left the message on the machine.
HYATT: Several messages, in fact, right.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right. Are you going to reapply?
HYATT: My husband and I have decided to reapply. Actually, he is going in to the office today to try to get an appointment which we can make.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. I – What is – How – What have you learned from all of this, I wonder, Christine?
HYATT: It has been a long-running experience but the main lesson I take is that the County is just not providing for people who truly need this type of service. I’m more fortunate than most, as I was telling Dagny when she took my story for the Voice of San Diego, that I have a large family here in San Diego and if it wasn’t for my family, it would be a completely different story. I can literally say that I would be on the streets if not for my family, and my kids would be going hungry. And it’s just shocking to me that there are people out there who don’t have the support system who are trying to go through this process and are experiencing similar obstacles that I went through. And I just hope that they fix this program because there are people out there who are suffering because of it.
CAVANAUGH: Christine, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
HYATT: Thank you again for hearing me out.
CAVANAUGH: That’s Christine Hyatt and she’s called in to San D – to KPBS and spoken with the voiceofsandiego.org about her struggles trying to get some food stamps from her – for her family. Dagny, I wonder, one of the most telling things, I think, in your article in Voice of San Diego is the fact that you spoke with Dan Jansen (sic). He’s a former chief administrative officer for San Diego County and now he’s chief administrator for LA County. And he kind of broke down the differing attitudes in San Diego and LA about providing social services, making sure the social service safety net is really catching the people who need it, both here and up in LA. What did he tell you?
SALAS: Actually, well, he spoke to Kelly, but, well, he did, you know, based on what we got from him, he, you know, he basically said that, you know, the policies here in San Diego are not something that the board of supervisors in the County in LA wanted to see. They said, you know, leave that in San Diego. It’s a different mentality, you know, and in LA they just had a different way of doing things.
CAVANAUGH: And what is the different mentality, Kelly?
BENNETT: Yeah, it’s actually David Jensen but he was here…
BENNETT: That’s okay. He was here for 13 years and then he went up to LA for 10 years. So when we heard that there was, you know, this person out there who’d kind of had his feet in both – one foot in each – on either side of that ideological divide, we want to get in touch with him. And to be sure, LA County has lines out the door. I’m sure it has all sorts of the similar issues that San Diego County has with funding right now but when he was – when he went up there, he was talking a lot about indigent healthcare, which is healthcare for people who have no other way to pay for it and it’s emergency so if you have diabetes, if your appendix bursts, I mean, the kinds of things that if you don’t have the healthcare you’re going to get a bill for thousands of dollars if – or you’re just not going to get treated, as is the case in some of the people in our story. When he went to LA he found a group of supervisors who said do not talk about closing our public hospital, do not talk about rationing this care for people who are low income, who don’t have any other option. The way that he phrased it to me was that LA County, especially in this particular area of this healthcare for people who don’t have any other way to pay for it, very much saw themselves as the provider of last resort. And San Diego County, in previous decades, had really taken steps to kind of divest itself of the hands-on responsibility for these things so selling its public hospital to UCSD and making it so that the income levels for these programs were very much contingent on however little money came in from the state. Well, that was later deemed illegal. Courts twice forced the county in the last five years to raise their income limits and say more people have to be able to get this care if they live in San Diego County. It’s not enough to say that the only person who’s needy is someone who makes $800 a month or less in San Diego County, before taxes, I mean, that’s an incredibly low number, especially considering how much it costs to make it here.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you two questions and we’re coming up on – to the end of our time here. But first, the County maintains that some of the statistics that place the county on the bottom when it comes to providing social services are skewed because there are so many military personnel here and there are so many perhaps undocumented people here. And the – You can’t just do a statistical analysis of San Diego County and say that the County is not providing enough social services. Do you have an answer for that?
BENNETT: You know, it’s – those factors certainly play into any demographic analysis but every county in the state is going to have some demographic difference that’s going to make that county unique. We’re not saying that San Diego is exactly the same as LA or Santa Clara or any of these other places. You know, the national studies that come out that say that San Diego is the lowest in the country in enrolling eligible people for food stamps aren’t saying that San Diego’s the same as Philadelphia or Detroit or, you know, any of the other places that are measured. But I think what’s really important to look at is the fact that there are chances because of the data that’s available publicly in this country and in the state and in the county to see where we stack up next to other places.
CAVANAUGH: And I just have to ask you one more question because in your report there’s a quote from Dianne Jacob, Supervisor Dianne Jacobs – Jacob, who says basically when she goes to her constituents, nobody asks her why aren’t you giving out more food stamps. Is this a problem not simply with county, if it is indeed a problem, is this an attitude not simply with our county officials but with ourselves here in San Diego?
BENNETT: Right, these are the policy decisions that we have made over the last, say, several decades. I mean, this is a board of supervisors that has been in office, reelected several times. There’s no denying that. And there’s no denying that there are philosophical differences about how we treat the people who are the neediest in our society. What we wanted to do with this was to provide a picture that everyone can look at and discuss and say how are we doing next to some of these other places? Orange County is not a liberal county. You know, LA is and San Francisco is and there are other places in the state, clearly, that philosophically approach things differently than maybe the majority of people here. But San Diego County has changed a lot since these people have been in office and it’ll be interesting to see in upcoming elections and as these conversations really continue how the philosophical attitudes about these programs and about other programs that take care of the neediest members of our society really change going forward.
CAVANAUGH: I have to end it. Thank you so much Kelly Bennett, Dagny Salas.
BENNETT: Thank you.
SALAS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Voiceofsandiego.org, and their special report is called “Out of Reach.” You can comment at KPBS.org/thesedays. These Days continues in just a moment here on KPBS.