County Services Questioned
GLORIA PENNER (Host): We begin as joblessness continues in San Diego. The result is increasing hunger and homelessness. And this is where the county is supposed to step in to offer a lifeline. But that lifeline too often is frayed. In December we interviewed Christine Hyatt, who needs help to put food on the table for her family.
CHRISTINE HYATT (Food Stamps Applicant): I would crawl through glass for my kids and… who cares? If people know I have food stamps, oh well. I'm going to apply for it and anything that I can do to bring in a little bit extra to support my family I'm going to do it.
It's been a very hard process and it's been going on a little bit more than a month and a half almost two months and I still haven't been able to get in for my appointment to see if I qualify.
It's very sad that they don't make feeding…if it even wasn't for me, just for the children. They should make that their priority to make sure that every child in San Diego that doesn't have the ability or whose parents don't have the ability to properly feed them nutritious food should get that help.
PENNER: We followed up with Christine this week. Her family still doesn’t have food stamps, but is in the process of reapplying. So joining me now to talk about the county’s responsibility for providing assistance to San Diego’s poor and if it’s being fulfilled are Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org, and Barbara Bry, associate publisher and opinion editor of SDNN.com. Andrew, Christine Hyatt called in to KPBS Editor’s Round Table about her problems with the county food stamp program, and then your team pursued it; profiled her in your investigative series on the county’s safety net. Now what did your series reveal?
ANDREW DONOHUE (voiceofsandiego.org): Sure. Well we spent about two years looking at sort of the basic core safety net programs in the county, and our investigation revealed there are just wide gaps in that safety net. So, if you're poor and you're in San Diego you have no less need for these sort of programs, but you're a lot less likely to actually be able to connect with them because of road blocks that are put up by the county, because the county is not investing it, and because its just not a priority to the county.
PENNER: The County is a huge bureaucracy, Barbara. How much of this can be attributed to staff? How much can be attributed to the elected officials, the supervisors?
BARBARA BRY (SDNN.com): Gloria, it all starts at the top. And first I’d like to commend Voice of San Diego for doing an important series in which they interviewed the five county supervisors. And if you read those interviews, it’s apparent that a majority of them are in favor of creating road blocks and making it difficult for people to access food stamps and other health and human services.
PENNER: And indeed your series concluded that county government has a historical resistance to providing social welfare programs. What were you able to trace this to? What is it developed from?
DONOHUE: Well I think first of all it’s just a political culture in San Diego that goes back decades and decades. Probably to the founding of San Diego as it was a very conservative county. What I think is interesting now is it’s starting to shift. So do the policies of the county supervisors shift along with the populace? So that was one thing. The second part is the county supervisors who are in office have all been in office together since the early nineties. And they came into office at a time when welfare fraud and sort of stamping out welfare programs was sort of the politics of the day. And that’s all changes a lot. I think we see a lot less welfare fraud than we used to. We see a lot less stigma associated with these programs, but they seem to be sticking with that same fight that they had when they came into office.
PENNER: Let’s talk a little but about that fraud, Barbara. You’ve been a journalist in San Diego for a long time. How important is the fact that they came into office at a time when there was some fraud having to do with welfare? I mean, at this point, haven’t we gotten past that?
BRY: Well I would hope we’ve gotten past it. And I really don’t understand why they haven’t. I mean the amount of time and money you spend preventing fraud, you would better use those resources to help people in need. And I think it is a mindset that starts at the top and that it really needs to change. Particularly since we have the highest unemployment rate we’ve had in decades in California, so there’re more people who need these services.
PENNER: Now can the reasons for under-serving the needy be attributed entirely to the county and the supervisors? We put supervisor Ron Roberts on the record to respond to the criticism the county has received.
RON ROBERTS (San Diego County Supervisor): The interesting thing, is some of the people who are leveling criticism, are state officials who are responsible for cutting the budget, they took over $70 million dollars from the County last year. They are cutting programs throughout the whole area, we are trying to provide wrap-around services in a number of different ways, and it's essential that we continue to do that.
We are making the changes to get our budget, we are extending and using outside agencies to help us enroll people. For instance in food stamps, we are making dramatic improvements, in terms of getting those people enrolled easier and less expensive. But at the same time that we are being de-funded, we received far less money than any other major county in California. A fraction of what San Francisco would receive, and we are doing the very best we can, and we want to make sure we have programs that have integrity, but we give people a chance to get the…qualified people should have a chance to get those services, and we're working hard to see that happen.
PENNER: So why does San Diego County receive less money than the other counties?
DONOHUE: Well, I think there're sort of two issues. First of all, actually for administering these programs it doesn’t. All the other counties have received the same sort of cuts that San Diego has. Those other counties have decided to make it a priority to actually be that safety net, be that last resort for their own residents. San Diego has clearly said that no, we’re going to fight that. So that’s one point. The second point is I believe the supervisor is referring to just sort of the general amount of money that San Diego gets from the state. And that’s been frozen like that since I think the early eighties with Proposition 13. And that’s all based on our own low tax rate. So because we have a low tax rate here, we’ve frozen ourselves into that funding. So other areas that have higher tax rates are getting more money from the state.
PENNER: Yet supervisor Roberts said that things are improving. How do we see that improvement?
BRY: Well, I think things are improving. And I was actually at a program several months ago that talked about hunger in San Diego and, you know, how few of our eligible people for food stamps actually get it. So using the outside agencies to get people to sign up for food stamps is a good thing and a step in the right direction. However, I disagree with Supervisor Roberts. We are not doing the best we can. Other counties are putting in their own money when they're losing money from the state and we are not.
PENNER: Well, at this point you have compiled data that indicates that our county is at the bottom of the safety net providers. How reliable is that data?
DONOHUE: I think it’s as sound and as reliable of a study as there has been. There are obviously always caveats and always estimating and everything like that. And we make that clear it’s estimates. But the fact is that all this data applies to all these counties as a whole. So what do we do? We look at where San Diego County stands in comparison to the rest, and we’re at or near the bottom in every single one of these programs compared to the other major counties in California.
PENNER: So, you didn’t start with the assumption that San Diego was the worst and then look for stuff to prove that?
DONOHUE: Great question, great question. We started with the idea that there were obviously signs that there were problems with San Diego’s safety net. We then started to research how San Diego actually looked compared to other counties to see if that was a trend or isolated incidence. And it became clear that it was a clear pattern and a trend there.
PENNER: So how strong now do you think the pressure is on the supervisors to emulate what other counties are doing – go beyond what the state mandates for the needy?
BRY: Well, I think because of the Voice of San Diego series, there is more pressure on the supervisors. There's actually real data out there that shows a consistent pattern of behavior, and I don’t think many of the supervisors really represent what the citizens of San Diego want done. And hopefully the citizens and the voters will speak up now.
PENNER: But aren’t we expecting too much from the county that is functioning is such tough economic times.
BRY: We aren’t talking about millions and millions of dollars. It’s not that much money to make a difference in getting more people to enroll in food stamps and to give them the services that they need. It’s really a choice. The second thing is, this is, as Andy talked about, we pay less taxes per capita than almost any major city in California. So perhaps there need to be a mindset in change in the voters in San Diego and this again, leadership has to come from the top.
PENNER: So does it all have to come down to a change in the board of supervisors?
DONOHUE: I'm not here to lobby for that. I think what we’ll see going forward is do their policies actually reflect what San Diegans want? And I think there're plenty of supervisors who can come back and say this is exactly what my constituents want me to do.