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The welfare fraud investigator peered in Yesenia Valenzuela’s closet. The investigator opened the laundry hamper, peeked in the bathroom, looked in the nearly empty fridge.
Valenzuela knew she had to let the visitor search her Lincoln Heights home. The county sends district attorney investigators to welfare applicants’ homes to look for inconsistencies — like men’s clothing for someone claiming to be a single mom — and to make sure their children live there.
Applicants don’t have to agree to the home visit, supporters of the anti-fraud program say. But if applicants turn the investigators away, they can’t get the benefits.
That wasn’t an option for Valenzuela. The 28-year-old said she needed the help. She’d injured her back in 2007 and lost her job at Walmart. She and her children were sleeping on a mattress on the floor. So the investigator came and searched. Valenzuela was approved for the aid from CalWORKs, the county’s welfare for families program.
This is San Diego County’s controversial Project 100%, a key piece of its approach to social welfare programs.
The program has come under fire over the last decade, sparking a class action lawsuit and a national debate about constitutional privacy rights. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of local residents sued the county in 2000, claiming the searches tread on their privacy rights just because they were poor.
The program survived the court challenge, but the appeals court judge writing for the minority in the case called the county’s program “an assault on our country’s poor.”
“California’s fifty-seven other counties do not have programs in place that go as far as San Diego’s Project 100%,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in his 2007 dissent, “but this ruling will surely set the new standard.”
Project 100% drew national attention to San Diego County’s policies.
The appeals court “effectively informed those on welfare that their homes are not as sacred as those belonging to the rest of the citizenry,” the Harvard Law Review said.
A house editorial from The New York Times argued that the case signaled a loss of privacy rights.
“When the government is allowed to show up unannounced without a warrant and search people’s homes, it is bad news for all of us,” it said.
Comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned the anti-fraud program for essentially creating an à-la-carte constitution, with barebones packages for the poor and deluxe rights for those in higher income brackets.
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The majority of judges on the appeals court, however, declared the visits reasonable considering applicants are seeking direct government money.
“Moreover, the home visits are conducted with the applicant’s express consent, thus, further reducing the applicant’s expectation of privacy,” they wrote in a 2006 decision.
The program’s chief, Commander John Haley in the District Attorney’s Office, said he’s trying to heal wounds caused by the controversy. Haley said the investigators have been retrained and their policies for the home visits have been revised. The most controversial part of the program — the walk-through of the applicant’s home — is now only supposed to be used as a last resort to clear up any remaining questions about eligibility, Haley said.
“We don’t want to be seen as adversaries,” Haley said.
Some advocates say the push against fraud is just a smokescreen.
“The belief in the advocate community has always been that the Project 100% thing is not about fraud but it’s about saving money — make it more humiliating and more difficult to be on welfare so it serves as a deterrent,” said Clare Pastore, a University of Southern California law professor.
County officials said taxpayers expect them to run efficient programs.
“What we’re trying to do is keep from having any major scandal that quite honestly could be more of a threat than anything else to a program,” said Ron Roberts, county supervisor.
— KELLY BENNETT and DAGNY SALAS