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Welfare Reform In San Diego 15 Years On


It’s been 15 years since Federal Welfare Reform passed. Since then the number of people on the welfare rolls in San Diego has dropped more than 50 percent.

You hear more about cuts to education or development projects than you do about cuts to welfare benefits for poor families.

Mary, a native San Diegan who applied for welfare, or “Calworks” 15 years ago, said there’s a good reason for that.

“You don’t hear about it because people are ashamed, because there’s a stigma attached to it,” she said “and there shouldn’t be.”

Mary is not really her name, but she’s afraid to reveal her identity for fear it would affect the career she has struggled for years to establish. She said she didn’t want to apply for aid but her parents were unable to help her out when she got divorced.

“I had no other options,” she said. “I had no income, I had a family to feed. I had to stick it out, I had to persevere, and so I just kept knocking on that door.”

Mary was one of the success stories. Though she was only given enough training to get a job with rock-bottom wages, her commitment and determination eventually turned that into an office career. She knows many women with children who were not so lucky, and especially now, getting a foot on the employment ladder is far more difficult.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: County of San Diego

The number of families in San Diego County with children in the CalWorks program.

Fifteen years ago, in the mid-1990s, the economy was doing fine. Dale Fleming of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency said federal welfare reform required those on cash aid to train to get into the workforce. She said the state version of the federal program, CalWorks, got off to a good start.

“When we began, we had a very hot economy,” Fleming said. ”It was easy to place people in jobs, and so we had a lot of early success.”

San Diego County’s welfare caseload sank steadily until around 2006, from 63,000 families to 22,000.

However, Bill Oswald, a professor at Springfield College in City Heights, questions if the drop was really due to people getting back into the workforce.

Oswald studies issues surrounding poverty. He said data shows, though the welfare rolls dropped, the percentage of people in poverty who have a job has not changed much.

“Most of the people who got jobs, got jobs that paid $8 to $9 an hour,” he said, “and they lasted six to nine months. Once they lost those jobs, mostly women, they couldn’t get back on. “

In 2005 the rules changed and welfare offices were given an even stronger incentive to reduce the number on aid.

Joni Halpern works with SPIN, a San Diego-based advocacy group for families struggling to get out of poverty. She said welfare departments faced heavy sanctions if they couldn’t put 50 percent of the people to work. She said county officials realized they would loose federal funding if half of their caseload wasn’t working - and that goal became increasingly difficult to meet. So, she said, qualifying for aid got harder and getting disqualified was more common.

“They got dropped off because the form wasn’t signed in the right place,” she said, “ or it wasn’t stamped in the right place, or the office lost the forms. There’s a thousand doors that can dump you off the system.”

Meanwhile, for families who do qualify, the amount of cash aid has steadily gone down. This year it dropped 8 percent due to state budget cuts. The most a single mother with three children can now get is $760 a month. The time limit families can stay on cash aid has also shrunk from five years to four.

Oswald said the trend has been to shift aid, like tax credits, to benefit those with some income.

“If you look at policy related to poverty since the mid 1980s,” he said, “we began to shift the benefits we provided to people below the poverty line to those higher up. So what we’ve seen is a shrinking in benefits to people who are very poor, extremely poor."

While the welfare rolls have fallen, the number of households on Food Stamps or Cal Fresh in San Diego County has quadrupled, from 15,000 in 1996 to 32,500 now. Dale Fleming of Health and Human Services said that’s more than 230,000 people.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: County of San Diego

The number of households in San Diego on food stamps, now called Cal Fresh.

Fleming said it’s easier to qualify for CalFresh than CalWorks. To get cash aid from the welfare to work program you have to spend down all your assets, and, she said, many people hit by the current economy haven’t done that yet.

“People have stored up liquid assets,” she said. “Bank accounts and so forth, and as those get spent down more, and as the unemployment benefits deteriorate, more people will become eligible.”

The line on the County’s graph of people on cash aid stopped falling in 2006. In the last year it has risen to more than 32,000 families. The only thing preventing the line from rising sharply is likely to be the increasingly stringent rules for who can apply.

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