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In our special report Out of Reach this week, we described the gaps in San Diego County’s social welfare safety net. We told you the county had the lowest food stamps participation rate in the country annually and detailed the struggles of two parents trying to apply for the program here.

San Diego County’s low participation in the food stamps program stems from problems with the way the county operates, a study released today by the Supportive Parents Information Network concludes from more than 170 interviews with low-income residents.

Volunteers associated with SPIN, a non-profit support group for low-income people, interviewed those residents in early 2009 about their experiences living in poverty here. They specifically asked questions about hunger, access to food and food stamps.

Among the study’s findings:

  • It takes a long time to apply for food stamps:

    Completing the application requires up to five visits (the average number of visits was 4.35), with each visit taking several hours (the average wait time was 3.9 hours, with 36% waiting four or more hours).

  • Before applying for aid, people who went to the county for help felt like they had to overcome a societal stigma:

    These feelings of shame and fear were so strong that 58% of the respondents reported that they had denied needing food even though they were hungry when asked by teachers, case workers, etc., whether they had enough. Of those respondents, almost half (48.6%) reported shame as the reason for denying their need for food.

  • Once people decide to apply, they found a “culture of fear and degradation” at county centers:

    People are searched and/or scanned as they enter the Family Resource Centers (FRCs). They face long lines and are not given clear directions about the process. The first person they speak to is behind bulletproof glass.

    Two county programs that are touted as fixes to the county’s low participation rate are actually making the problems worse. A computer system sends confusing and contradictory notices to recipients. The reorganization of county workers to a model where recipients don’t have an assigned caseworker turned the process “into a kind of assembly line with no particular person responsible for any individual caseload,” according to the study.

The study recommends, among other things, that the county:

  • Reduce wait times at county centers to an hour or less.
  • End the its anti-fraud home visitation program for welfare recipients, a program that launched a national debate about constitutional privacy rights. (An applicant for only food stamps and not cash aid is not subject to the home visit unless there are discrepancies on the application.)
  • Lobby the state of California to end fingerprinting as a requirement for getting food stamps.

The interviews were conducted before the county approved a new plan for its Health and Human Services Agency to increase food stamps enrollment and outreach last April. The plan’s focus on outreach has some advocates cheering the change.

But the study’s authors say the thrust of the plan doesn’t address the issues they found.

In addition to outreach, the new plan also seeks to bar the purchase of non-nutritious foods from the food stamp program and requires participants to undergo nutrition education.

These elements directly conflict with findings from the SPIN study which shows that [the food stamp program] is widely known among low-income families, but the problems of access lie within HHSA. … Finally, the study indicates that starting in the third week of each month, the least nutritious and cheapest foods are consumed as a last resort. If these foods were barred from purchase, low-income families would go hungry.

— KELLY BENNETT and DAGNY SALAS

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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