In our special report Out of Reach this week, we’ve been detailing the wide gaps in San Diego County’s safety net for the poor.

We included research findings from our partners at The Rose Institute that showed San Diego enrolls among the lowest proportion of eligible persons for Medi-Cal, Food Stamps, and CalWORKs among the state’s largest counties.

We asked Ilan Wurman, lead researcher, to share some additional questions sparked by the research:

These data raise important policy implications for San Diego County. The state’s Welfare and Institutions Code declares that the administration of public social services — including Medi-Cal, CalWORKs, Food Stamps, relief to indigents, and other programs — is a county function. Is San Diego County fulfilling its obligation as the steward of these programs?

The data offer several interpretations. The county may be turning away deserving people. Figures 3.16 and 3.17 in the Rose Institute analysis reveal that in fiscal year 2008, San Diego denied the highest percentage of applicants to both the CalWORKs and the food stamps programs. And Figure 3.24 shows that 30 percent of CalWORKs denials were based on a “failure to comply with procedural requirements,” rather than on a failure to meet the income, deprivation, or children requirements.

But there is another interpretation: the other populous counties — which tend to be more liberal than San Diego (Figure 1.9 in the report) — may simply be more lenient on the eligibility requirements. San Diego may be saving taxpayer money at a time when the state is experiencing enormous fiscal difficulties. By covering fewer individuals, San Diego may be covering the most needy while at the same time exercising fiscal responsibility.

The data may also be an indication of priorities. San Diego has some of the lowest individual caseloads in its public protection departments. Among the counties for which data are available, San Diego has the second smallest caseload for adult probationers per adult probation field officers; the second smallest caseload of indigent defendants both per public defender and per investigator; and it has the smallest number of submitted cases per district attorney. These suggest a possible emphasis on public protection over public assistance programs.

Whatever the interpretation, the Rose Institute analysis reveals interesting differences between San Diego and the state’s other populous counties.

Beyond these questions, Wurman filled in some behind-the-scenes details about the way the research went.

How did the Rose Institute estimate the number of county residents eligible for these programs?

The requirements for qualifying for the state’s many welfare programs are complicated. Rose used enrollment data from the state and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

So how’d they do their analysis? Warning: This next bit gets pretty technical. But some of you have been asking for specifics on the research. So buckle your seatbelts!

Here’s Wurman:

Food stamps (currently known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), is the most straightforward program. The federal guidelines instruct that individuals making a net income within 100 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL), or a gross income within 130 percent of FPL, are eligible. Gross income is calculated before any taxes or deductions are taken into account.

The ACS uses gross income. The Rose Institute therefore used the number of individuals living under 125 percent of the federal poverty level — the closest breakdown to 130 percent in the ACS — to estimate the eligibility pool in the counties. Figure 3.10 in the Rose Institute’s report shows that San Diego and Orange Counties enroll the smallest proportion of residents estimated to be eligible for food stamps compared to the other ten populous counties.

Medi-Cal and CalWORKs have more complicated guidelines. There are over one hundred categories of Medi-Cal recipients with varying requirements. To make its analysis meaningful, the Rose Institute studied the largest category, the 1931(b) program. This program has the same eligibility requirements as CalWORKs: the family’s income must be within 100 percent of FPL, it must have children, and the principal wage-earner must be “underemployed” (working no more than 100 hours a month). There are also typically property requirements.

To estimate eligibility, the Institute took ACS data on families with children within 130 percent of poverty. The analysis ignored the underemployment requirement and any property requirements. Assuming that poverty is in general closely proportional to underemployment, neglecting these factors should have minimal impact on the relative position of each county in the analysis. Figure 3.6 in the Rose Institute report shows that based on this methodology, San Diego County enrolls the lowest proportion of eligible residents on Medi-Cal.

Even though CalWORKs has the same basic requirements, it is more complicated to determine eligibility because of time limits on the program. In general, far fewer people are enrolled in CalWORKs than in 1931(b) Medi-Cal. The Rose Institute therefore decided to include unemployment (not underemployment, which the ACS does not survey) in its eligibility estimate for the program.

Figure 3.21 reveals that San Diego ranks third of the twelve counties in the analysis using this measure. Unemployment undercounts the number of eligible persons (because they really can be employed for up to 100 hours a month), so one will notice that some counties enroll over 100% based on this methodology.

Have questions for Wurman or about the way any of our special report has been going? I’d love to hear from you and could pass your questions along. Drop me a line at


Dagny Salas

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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