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California Budget Cuts Hurt Social Safety Net

Martha Rodriquez, a front line worker at San Diego County's Family Resource benefits office near El Cajon Boulevard.
Alison St John
Martha Rodriquez, a front line worker at San Diego County's Family Resource benefits office near El Cajon Boulevard.

The economic downturn has tipped thousands of families off the edge of a financial cliff. But at the same time, the social safety net to catch them is stretched thinner and thinner. California’s state budget cuts are bad news for those who have fallen on hard times.

On a weekday afternoon in San Diego’s North County, a steady stream of people climbed the stairs to the Oceanside Family Resource Center to join the line waiting to apply for benefits.

Aidia Saman, a middle-aged woman in a flowery dress, came back down those stairs. She looked close to tears.

“I lost my job,” she explained. “ I lost my house, I’m losing everything. I was on unemployment and now they don’t want to extend it.”

Saman used to work in a bank. Now she’s among those whose unemployment benefits have run out. She says she was told she could apply for aid on line but that didn’t work.

“I applied online,“ she said, “and nobody answered - they never answer you back.”

She said she didn’t have enough money to buy food, so she joined the line at the Family Resource Center and waited. After four hours she was seen, but she is still not sure if she will get aid.

Julie Propati, a thin energetic woman, is an old hand. She said she’s been coming to apply for benefits on and off for years. She has always had low-wage jobs and she raised her kids with the help of what is now called Cal Works; it used to be called welfare. Most recently she was a meter reader for SDG&E, but was laid off when meters were automated. She said she’s seen changes in the people who come to this office.

“It used to be just women here with little babies,” she said, “or women with children; maybe a few Hispanic families. But now you’ll see single men - black and white - young, in their 20s, 30s, in line.”

Propati said she’s also noticed a change in the amount of time it takes to apply for benefits.

“I don’t know if there’s too many people coming, or if the case load is too big. But now you have to get in the line, which is usually out the door. There’s people in line all day usually, and you have to even get in that line to ask a question.”

It didn’t used to be like that, Propati says.

“You’d come in, and it would be maybe half an hour. You would sit in the lobby, and then your worker would call you, and you’d go back and talk with them.”

In those days, Propati said, she had a particular caseworker, whom she dealt with each visit, and who knew her situation.

The County has reengineered its benefits program to deal with the increased workload. County officials say in the last three years, the number of people they’ve enrolled for federal food aid has gone up 140 percent. Even so, San Diego is still in the bottom five large counties nationwide in terms of the number of eligible people enrolled in the Cal Fresh or food stamp program.

Officials say the number of poor families with children enrolled in the Cal Works benefits program has gone up 40 percent since 2007.

A study by San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives shows that while demand for benefits has doubled in the last decade, staffing at benefits offices has only been increased 1 percent.

Martha Rodriqez has been working on the front lines at a benefits office near El Cajon Boulevard in central San Diego for five years. At the end of her shift she talked about the way her job has changed and the increasing workload.

“There has been a lot more access and availability,” Rodriquez said, “but not enough workers to actually implement the program; implementation is what’s the problem.”

Rodriqeuz said many county employees working in the benefits offices feel like cogs in a machine, rather than doing case work to help people get back on their feet. She said some of them earn so little they qualify for benefits themselves.

California’s state budget cuts will affect poor families even more. Starting July 1st, a family of three will see their monthly check cut by 8 percent. Instead of almost $700 a month, they’ll get about $640.

Also starting next week, if families earn even 88 percent of the federal poverty level, they wont qualify for benefits anymore. The lifetime limit on receiving benefits will drop from five years to four.

Plus thousands of single moms could lose childcare benefits, making it difficult to go to work even if they can find a job.

Back outside the Oceanside Family Resource Center, Julie Propati is philosophical about the longer wait times to get benefits.

“In my opinion, if you’re going to come here and you need aid from the government, you should be patient,” she said.

But for thousands of people who find themselves now unable to get by, even waiting all day in line is unlikely to mean they get the help they say they so desperately need.