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Monday, June 25, 2007 | While her 3-year-old, Laron, jumped from stair to stair outside the county’s Family Resource Center on Market and 45th streets last week, Malika Downs finally picked up her food stamps. She applied to receive the assistance four weeks ago.

Since moving to San Diego from Perris, Calif., last month, Downs has been scraping together money to feed herself and her five children, ages 3 to 18. Since May 24, Downs has been to the office three or four times, she said, to be photographed, fingerprinted, and to submit additional application information. In between visits, the county sent investigators to her house to make sure she lived there. She said the process in Perris, in Riverside County, was quicker.

Food Stamp Participation Rates

Percentage of people who received food stamps in 2004 out of those who were eligible.
San Diego
 
27%
Las Vegas
 
43%
Jacksonville, Fla.
 
51%
Los Angeles
 
52%
Houston
 
55%
Denver
 
59%
Oakland
 
60%
Phoenix
 
60%
San Antonio
 
67%
Atlanta
 
77%
Chicago
 
80%
Miami
 
80%
Philadelphia
 
81%
Columbus, Ohio
 
85%
Louisville, Ky.
 
86%
Milwaukee
 
90%
Indianapolis
 
94%
Memphis, Tenn.
 
99%
San Diego
 
27%Las Vegas
 
43%Jacksonville, Fla.
 
51%Los Angeles
 
52%Houston
 
55%Denver
 
59%Oakland
 
60%Phoenix
 
60%San Antonio
 
67%Atlanta
 
77%Chicago
 
80%Miami
 
80%Philadelphia
 
81%Columbus, Ohio
 
85%Louisville, Ky.
 
86%Milwaukee
 
90%Indianapolis
 
94%Memphis, Tenn.
 
99%
San Diego
 
27%
Las Vegas
 
43%
Jacksonville, Fla.
 
51%
Los Angeles
 
52%
Houston
 
55%
Denver
 
59%
Oakland
 
60%
Phoenix
 
60%
San Antonio
 
67%
Atlanta
 
77%
Chicago
 
80%
Miami
 
80%
Philadelphia
 
81%
Columbus, Ohio
 
85%
Louisville, Ky.
 
86%
Milwaukee
 
90%
Indianapolis
 
94%
Memphis, Tenn.
 
99%
Source: Food Research and Action Center

But last week, dressed in a pink tank top and black shorts to combat the June heat in southeast San Diego, Downs gushed relief to be holding her stamps — which, in the 21st century, are actually debit-like cards that can be used at grocery and convenience stores.

“It’s been OK (in San Diego), but long,” she said. “Don’t ever have to go through this.”

Downs is part of a minority of residents in San Diego County: those who know they even qualify for the social service program. Of the nearly 300,000 eligible county residents for the food stamp program in 2004, only 80,502 people — just 27 percent — were receiving the vouchers. That was the lowest rate among any of the urban areas studied by the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center. Officials from the county’s food stamp program say the enrollment’s now up to about 91,000.

If the number of eligible food stamp participants didn’t grow during that time, that increase in participation would peg the county’s rate at about 31 percent. There’s only one other urban area that was under 50 percent in 2004: Clark County (Las Vegas), with a 43 percent rate. And Los Angeles, fighting many of the same statewide regulatory deterrents as San Diego, achieved a 52 percent rate. The center plans to update the urban area participation rates study later this summer.

Experts on the program say many eligible residents think that being employed disqualifies them; others are concerned that receiving food stamps could compromise their immigration status. Still others think they must have children to access the program, while it is actually available for many low-income single adults.

With fewer food stamps accessed, federal government aid is deflected to other counties and is not spent in the county’s grocery stores, and thus is not cycled through the region’s economy. In 2004, the unclaimed benefits in San Diego totaled more than $148 million, according to the report.

Despite the gargantuan gap between the number of residents eligible for food stamps and those actually receiving them, the county’s Board of Supervisors has not expressed urgency in bumping up the region’s rate. But it has been paying attention to other aspects of the program.

The supervisors on June 12 unanimously approved a letter penned by Supervisor Ron Roberts recommending government regulators prevent food stamp users from purchasing high-sugar foods with their vouchers, a regulation they say could curb obesity among low-income residents. Item ‘C’ of the three-point letter was increasing outreach and efficiency for the program; the first two items focused on curbing junk food purchases.

While advocates for low-income residents appreciate the sentiment behind the anti-obesity measure, they say it falls short of dealing with the real problem.

“We think that’s misguided, and we’re trying to direct people to more positive actions, to provide incentives to make healthy food more affordable and that kind of thing,” said George Manalo-LeClair, legislative director for the California Food Policy Advocates.

At other times, the county’s governing body has heavily emphasized the potential for fraud in the social service, sometimes at the expense of illuminating the county’s dismal participation rate. Matt Sharp, also with the California Food Policy Advocates, said in Los Angeles, county supervisors have focused more on getting eligible people enrolled — and claiming the millions of dollars in government aid for the region — than on warning applicants against defrauding the system.

The policy-dictated and verbalized focus on preventing fraud is disproportionate to its effect on the program, Sharp said.

“[In San Diego,] the proportion of efforts are heavily weighted toward fraud for the incidence of those things; there’s very little fraud,” Sharp said.

Food stamps, a federal aid program, are allotted to low-income single people and families and only work for purchasing food. Participants visit one of a couple dozen family resource centers around the county to complete the application process. The assistance is offered both to employed and unemployed people with household incomes of varying levels, depending on the number of people living in the household. When the household’s income rises, the amount of food stamp money it receives decreases. Downs wouldn’t disclose her monthly allotment, but for a household of 6 with no income, the maximum she could receive would be $738 monthly.

The federal food stamp calculator shows that for a single parent caring for two children, with a full-time minimum-wage job (which totals $15,600 annually), the food stamp allotment could be a little more than $250 per month.

For the program as a whole, anti-hunger advocates fear their concerns for bottom-scraping participation rates fall on deaf ears in the county’s board. The county staff in charge of the program aren’t entirely culpable for its problems, they say, but without the political gusto of a supervisor prioritizing the reversal of the poor participation rate, the program seems mired.

“I definitely don’t think it’s a lack of (staff) expertise, but at this point, there’s not a champion on the Board of Supervisors,” said Tia Anzellotti, director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, a nonprofit agency connecting various social service providers with the government. “There’s a little bit of, ‘This is the way it’s been,’ which gets momentum and is hard to stop. It’s big and heavy and it’s been going this way for so long.”

Dann Crawford, who directs the food stamp program, said he and his county staff colleagues have joined forces with groups like the Hunger Coalition to get the word out and to start streamlining the application process, which generally takes county applicants an average of about five hours and three trips to a resource office, most during business hours, when many applicants are working elsewhere. He emphasized those groups’ outreach programs for elderly residents, such as notices in community newsletters and radio broadcasts. His program doesn’t have a dedicated budget for outreach, he said.

“Our focus is on making accurate eligibility determinations for those [low-income] families and anyone else who requests this benefit,” Crawford wrote in an e-mail. “Locally, the Board of Supervisors has adopted a policy of zero tolerance for fraud.”

Crawford emphasized the county’s progress.

“We have increased participation rates, and I think we’re doing a better job of getting the word out,” he said in an interview. “That’s not to say we’re doing great. Obviously we’re trying to balance the integrity of the program with the participation rates.”

Crawford said the supervisors’ unanimous support of Roberts’ letter evidences their “high” sense of urgency on the issue of food stamp and hunger program participation in San Diego County.

But just one of the five supervisors responded to repeated requests for comment last week. Supervisor Dianne Jacob said better enrollment in the program would be to the advantage of the region’s economy, as San Diegans’ “precious” federal tax-dollars are currently diverted to other spots with better participation in the food stamp enrollment.

Jacob also reiterated the board’s emphasis on preventing fraud.

“Fraud is an issue; it’s a concern in any of our social service programs,” she said. “The key, I think, is to balance that with our outreach efforts.” She mentioned the county staff’s work to especially reach out to senior citizens.

But the other supervisors were mum. Through a representative, Supervisor Bill Horn declined comment and deferred requests for additional comment to Roberts, the board’s ceremonial chairman. Supervisor Pam Slater-Price also said through a representative that Roberts would handle comments on the issue. But repeated phone calls were unanswered by Roberts’ press representative, who relented Wednesday with an e-mailed comment: “The proposal speaks for itself.” Supervisor Greg Cox also did not return phone calls.

And until Tuesday, the county’s Health and Human Services Agency website — its official information-providing presence online for potential applicants — contained outdated information for eligibility and application for the food stamp program, information that expired in September 2005. The agency updated the website when alerted of the outdated information by voiceofsandiego.org earlier last week.

Despite the supervisors’ relative silence on the food stamp participation rate, not all of the deterrents to enrollment are local outreach problems. Experts across the board agreed certain California standards for enrolling in the program — such as having fingerprints taken and sitting for hours among hordes of voucher-seekers in public offices — seem like scarlet letters to many would-be participants.

“The finger imaging is an extra administrative hassle, and it’s very stigmatizing,” said Ellen Vollinger, director of food stamp research for the Food Research and Action Center. “Where cities are doing better, they’ve made the process more sensible for case workers and clients.”

And some advocates, even those who criticized San Diego’s program, said that’s exactly what county staff in charge of the food stamps is doing. There is something going on to address the problems, and the county can be fairly certain its updated result will be higher than 27 percent, Sharp said.

“They’re great at bringing on more community groups; a lot of that stuff has improved,” he said. “But the point is that too many people are living in poverty, with food insecurity. It’s jeopardizing their health, and [food stamps are] an assistance that would benefit their lives.”

Vollinger and others said it’ll take effort to turn the program’s gloomy rate around.

“Sometimes it takes a while to dig out of that hole,” she said.

Anzellotti said she was optimistic that Roberts’ recent board letter might lead to future advocacy for the food stamp program.

“He did mention the word ‘food stamps’ in his State of the County Address,” she said. “That’s a big step for our county.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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