The County Administration Center / Photo by Sam Hodgson

A controversial county program that for years claimed it turned up fraud in 25 percent of all welfare applications is being challenged in court.

San Diego County’s Project 100% requires anyone applying for California’s welfare program, CalWORKs, to agree to an unscheduled home inspection as part of the application process. Investigators look for evidence that verifies eligibility, like children’s clothing for someone claiming to be a single mom, or signs that the applicant’s been untruthful — like men’s clothing in the single-mom applicant’s home.

On Tuesday the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties filed a lawsuit arguing the program disproportionately targets women and people of color, who make up a majority of CalWORKs applicants, and violates California’s anti-discrimination laws.

“The bottom line is that (Project 100%) forces only the poor to open their doors to county investigators,” said ACLU staff attorney Jonathan Markovitz. “It does this to people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing whatsoever.”

Project 100%, which has been around for three decades, is unique to San Diego County. Los Angeles County tried a similar program, but ended it after finding it ineffective.

The lawsuit echoes what critics of the program have long argued: the searches are unnecessary and that there are less-intrusive ways to verify eligibility. In the past, to counter that criticism, the county touted the program’s success, repeatedly claiming home inspections saved taxpayer millions of dollars and that a quarter of all CalWORKs applicants who’d received preliminary approval were actually ineligible for benefits.

But a little-known 2014 study found serious flaws with the way the county was coding its data. The study, written by Hilda Chan, who at the time was an attorney and advocate working with San Diego-based Supportive Parents Information Network, found actual fraud was much lower.

Chan’s report says the county agreed with her findings: “[Heath and Human Services Agency] has verified that its P100 data collection method has historically inflated P100 fraud rates,” she wrote. Chan said in an interview that she met with county officials numerous times to discuss their methodology and how to fix it.

County spokeswoman Alex Bell didn’t respond directly to a question about Chan’s findings, but provided documents showing that for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the program turned up fraud in only about 6 percent of cases, for a savings of $305,000. The program cost roughly $2 million to operate. Chan’s findings cast the county’s claims about the cost-effectiveness of the program in a much different light.

The ACLU argues the home inspections also place an undue burden on applicants, who aren’t told when an investigator will show up.

“Applicants miss doctors appointments, cancel job interviews. It’s really a perverse irony of the program,” Markovitz said. “They feel incredible levels of stress and anxiety. They feel like they’re under house arrest.”

It’s not the first time Project 100% has been challenged in court. A federal lawsuit filed in 2000 by the ACLU and the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued the home inspections violated applicants’ privacy rights. The case reached the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where, in 2006, a three-judge panel sided with the county, agreeing that the searches “serve an important governmental interest.”

In his dissent, Judge Raymond Fisher issued a harsh rebuke of Project 100%, writing that it requires applicants to waive their constitutional rights, “with consent being coerced by the threat of denial of benefits.”

Launched in 1997, Project 100%’s origins appear to have had more to do with keeping public-assistance investigators employed than with finding fraud. For her report, Chan dug into the program’s history, and found minutes from a Feb. 18, 1997, meeting of the San Diego County DA Roundtable where investigators from the unit handling public-assistance fraud complained they weren’t getting enough fraud referrals.

According to the minutes, supervising District Attorney Investigator Frank Reid suggested that all applicants be subjected to home inspections. “The group thought Frank’s suggestion was an excellent idea,” the minutes say.

According to Chan’s report, Reid also seems to have been the one promulgating the claim that home inspections uncovered fraud among a quarter of all applicants.

“They were totally inflating their numbers,” Chan said in an interview. “They were counting all denials as fraud. They were counting all [application] withdrawals as fraud.”

In other words, officials were labeling as fraud cases where no evidence of fraud existed, and crediting Project 100%.

Chan concluded that the program was no more effective in identifying fraud than “less invasive eligibility verification tools” used by other counties.

Bell declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said investigators — who now work out of the Department of Child Care Services — aren’t there to criminalize or harass applicants.

“They are aware of a variety of other resources that the applicant may not know about, both in terms of government assistance programs and nonprofit resources, and they often try to help connect the applicant to other qualifying programs which will help lift them out of the cycle of poverty,” Bell said.

Markovitz said the ACLU’s lawsuit isn’t intended to impugn investigators. But he believes the county would be better served if those skills were focused on other issues, like wage theft.

“Even if the searches were done with the utmost respect,” he said, “we’re very concerned about how the county is using its resources.”

Kelly Davis

Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis...

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