Over the last few years, we’ve heard bits and pieces about San Diego County’s social welfare programs. A lawsuit demonstrated how strict the county’s limits were for providing health care coverage for the poor. News stories about controversial anti-fraud policies hinted at overriding policy decisions. An annual report pegged San Diego’s provision of food stamps at the bottom of the heap nationwide.

We wanted to know if these were isolated incidents or examples of a larger pattern. With this in mind, we partnered with the Rose Institute of Local and State Government at Claremont McKenna College to take a wider look at county services and compare San Diego to California’s other major counties.

A team of Claremont McKenna students, guided by fellows and professors, spent months studying the 12 largest counties in the state. The completed report provided a look at a wide range of county services — including these public assistance programs we’d been tracking. The section of the Rose Institute report dedicated to these programs confirmed that there was indeed a strong trend across San Diego’s social welfare programs.

From there, we spent the next several months interviewing more than 100 sources and reading piles of court filings and studies. The resulting series seeks to explore the gaps in San Diego County’s safety net, the roots of those gaps and the impacts on the residents who need help.

Out of Reach: A special investigation into social welfare programs in San Diego County, California.

A summary of what we found in our Out of Reach investigation:

  • The gulf between social welfare programs and the residents for whom they are designed is starker in San Diego than any other major California county.
  • San Diego’s denial rates for social welfare programs are the highest and its enrollment rates are at or near the bottom when compared to California’s largest counties or other major metro areas nationwide.
  • Courts have found the county’s income limits for health care to be too restrictive. The county has some of the strictest anti-fraud programs in the state.
  • The state obligates counties to run the programs, but it has made profound cuts to the funding the counties get, leaving them to find a way to keep social aid programs running.
  • San Diego County supervisors resent this mandate, calling the state a deadbeat and fighting it in court and in public.

We’ll be telling this story in a number of different ways.

We’ll have two main full-length stories, the first of which ran today and shows San Diego’s safety net’s shortcomings. The second runs on Monday and explains the financial and political roots of these issues. Watch for an audio slideshow with that piece, and our television partners at Cox Channel 4 and NBC 7/39 plan to have a related segment specifically on food stamps that begins airing Monday evening.

And consider this the launch of a community conversation about these priorities and issues.

We’ll be telling short stories in this blog, Survival in San Diego, throughout these next few days and into the coming weeks.

This is where you come in.

If we interviewed you or you’re involved in this system and you’d like to flesh out some issue or root cause or nuance associated with the gaps in San Diego County’s safety net, we’re inviting you to submit a blog post. (No more than 500 words, please.)

If you learn about something here and want to know more about it, pass along your question and we’ll try to dig to find the answer. If you’ve encountered the system yourself, or have family members or friends with anecdotes or experiences to share, please send them along.

And please don’t hesitate to ask questions about the series itself. You can do all of that by sending an e-mail to kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org.

You’ll notice the Rose Institute report covered a lot of ground that we didn’t. This was our first topic of focus tied to the report. But many more story ideas have come out of it and we’ll be doing our best both to tell those stories in the future and use the research to inform other related reporting. The Rose Institute folks are also meeting with other media around town to discuss the study, so you could see the study or this series appearing in other media too.

You’ll also see that the internship program at the Rose Institute that created the report is funded by the foundation of voiceofsandiego.org founder and board chairman Buzz Woolley. He had the smart idea that we should work together, and we hope to continue to work together with the Rose Institute in the future.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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