The San Diego County Administration Center / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Enrollment in CalWORKs – a federal program that provides cash assistance to families in need – has plummeted in San Diego over the past decade, from a peak of just over 80,000 recipients to roughly 41,700 in December 2019.

In the same time period, enrollment in other assistance programs, like Medi-CAL and CalFresh, has risen. CalFresh enrollment has dipped in recent years, but remains higher than it was in 2010.

Part of the explanation is good news: The minimum wage is higher, the economy is better, unemployment is low. Programs like CalWORKs are meant to provide temporary assistance, so over time numbers should fall. Indeed, federal and state enrollment numbers for CalWORKs and CalFresh have been following similar patterns.

Medi-CAL has followed a different course, in large part to the Affordable Care Act, which expanded enrollment.

“This is extremely normal,” said Richard Wanne, the director of eligibility operations at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. “These programs are behaving as they should.”

Assistance programs – and CalWORKs especially – are sensitive to income, Wanne said, which means as soon as the economy sees improvements, people will no longer qualify.

And CalWORKs, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as it’s called federally, is designed to be temporary. There is a 60-month lifetime cap for receiving assistance for recipients.

People become ineligible for the program once they’ve hit that cap.

Wanne also said that San Diego has large populations of military and college students who face unique obstacles in accessing benefits. Military families’ basic housing allowances are counted as income when they apply for benefits. In places like San Diego, where housing is expensive, that still leaves low-ranking military members and their families struggling to make ends meet.

College students who are caring for a young child, working a minimum of 20 hours per week and participating in a federally or state-backed work-study program can qualify for CalFresh, but there is often confusion over which students qualify, which means many who are eligible don’t apply.

But advocates say that those factors don’t fully explain the decreasing numbers in San Diego.

San Diego County, for decades, has been criticized for being overly strict in implementing public benefits programs for the poor. A 2010 Voice of San Diego investigation found that San Diego ranked at or near the bottom in enrolling eligible residents in social welfare programs among California’s 12 major counties and denied applicants for food stamps and welfare for families at a higher rate than any of its peers. And an anti-fraud program run by the county that requires anyone applying for CalWORKs to agree to an unscheduled home inspection as part of the application process has been challenged in court multiple times since 2000.

“The people who are falling off because they are making a little bit more money – we don’t think that’s the biggest reason why we have under-enrollment,” Anahid Brakke, the executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition. “Only about 60 percent of people who are eligible are enrolled in CalFresh.”

The gap is being filled by philanthropy, through food banks, instead of the county addressing complications that make it challenging for people to apply for benefits, Brakke said.

“I don’t find the unemployment numbers argument compelling,” said Kyra Greene, the executive director of the Center for Policy Initiatives.

Greene said that applications for benefits programs, especially CalFresh, haven’t declined in a significant way that would show that less people need aid.

The county had the third highest numbers of application denials for CalWORKs in the state, after San Bernardino and Riverside counties, according to March 2019 state data.

Many of the denials, she said, are because of a failure to follow bureaucratic procedures, not because the applicants aren’t sufficiently needy.

For Some, the Benefits Aren’t Worth the Hassle

Jacqueline Ibarra first applied for CalFresh on Sept. 13, 2019. The online application seemed easy enough. She could submit her documents through her phone and receive text message alerts. In a week, she had a case manager assigned to her and a phone interview.

Ibarra is a 26-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer placed with the San Diego Hunger Coalition. AmeriCorps volunteers qualify for CalFresh.

But soon, the application process got complicated – and even with the resources of CalFresh program managers working at the Hunger Coalition with her, it was a struggle to get the benefits she qualified for: $16 per month.

“I was definitely lucky to be in a workplace that was familiar with the process,” Ibarra said. “But the process was still long and confusing.”

A couple of weeks after her phone interview, Ibarra hadn’t heard anything, so she called her case manager. Her case manager told her she was approved, but said she needed to discuss something about her case with a supervisor. A week passed, and Ibarra still heard nothing. She called her case manager’s supervisor and left a voicemail. She never heard back.

Ibarra decided to call a hotline administered by the county to help people with their benefits’ questions and issues. She waited for about 45 minutes, then was told that her case had been denied on Oct. 7 – about two weeks earlier. Ibarra had never received any information about why her case was denied. Oct. 7 was only days after she had spoken to her caseworker last.

Then a few weeks later Ibarra received two letters in the mail from the county, both in the same envelope. One was a denial letter. The other letter said she had been approved for benefits for the full amount she qualified for.

Ibarra called the hotline again and they clarified that she had been rejected because there had been a mistake with her income. She resubmitted forms so the county could correct the mistake.

Then she went to get her card at the end of October. They accidentally printed a card with her sister’s name on it. Her sister had applied that summer, but was denied. They re-printed her card, but for some reason she was given far more money than what she qualified for, about $73. Ibarra decided not to use her benefits until everything was sort out, because she didn’t want to have to pay the county back later if she spent more funds than she qualified for.

While trying to give the extra funds back to the county, she was told that she had spent more than her allowance, though she hadn’t spent any of it.

It turned out, the county had sent her sister a card with her sister’s name, but Ibarra’s case number and Ibarra’s funds. Her sister had thought the county had changed their minds about her denial and used the funds.

With all the confusion, Ibarra didn’t actually get to use her benefits — $16 a month — until Nov. 22, almost 10 weeks and countless twists and turns after she applied.

Experiences like Ibarra’s aren’t rare and many attribute the bureaucratic hoops that people have to jump through for such a low amount of money as a reason why many people aren’t applying, keeping enrollment low and falling.

“The benefits haven’t kept up with inflation, so their value for some people has gone down” said Nathan Wollmann, a human services specialist at the county and treasurer for the county’s chapter of SEIU 221, the union that represents county social services employees.

The programs certainly need another look at the federal level, Wollmann said, but there are a lot of things that county can do to better organize and make sure people can more easily get even the $15 they qualify for.

James Floros, president and CEO of San Diego Food Bank, said the vast majority of people his organization signs up for CalFresh monthly distributions only receive about $17.

“Some people are like, ‘Why would I go through all this bureaucracy for that?’” Floros said.

CalWORKs cash assistance often comes in larger sums. Families of four can qualify for a maximum of $1,181 a month in San Diego. When there is more money at stake, it means that some of the complications in applying or errors made by the county on individual cases can determine whether someone makes rent that month, Wollmann said.

And errors aren’t rare, he said. County workers often get a maximum of two hours to work on each case, regardless of its complexity, and then they get assigned another one. The churn has had a negative impact on the accuracy of their work, he said. SEIU has long been pushing for more staffing to help fix the problem, he said.

“We really care about our clients and we want to make sure they get the benefits they are eligible for,” Wollmann said. “This could be income that could keep people housed. It’s an important part of the big picture on homelessness. If we’re not doing things correctly, that could keep someone from paying rent.”

More Outreach Could Help

For Brakke at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, an increased effort to education people on the benefits they qualify for and how to get them could help ensure people who qualify for CalFresh are accessing their benefits.

Under-enrollment of college students is an example, said Amanda Schultz Brochu, the senior director of programs at the San Diego Hunger Coalition.

Brakke and Schultz Brochu said the county has improved its outreach and increased enrollment in CalFresh over the past decade, but there’s still work to be done.

“I think the college student population shows how important it is to have proactive community organizations and a proactive county,” Schultz Brochu said.

She said her organization worked with colleges throughout the county to maximize college student enrollment in CalFresh. The San Diego Hunger Coalition put together an online toolkit for college students that lists the names of work study and other programs at colleges that would make students eligible for CalFresh, since they all have different names.

“We’re doing the county’s job here,” Brakke said.

Wanne agreed that educating people on whether they’re eligible for benefits is important, but pushed back on concerns that the county isn’t doing enough. The county has a full-time eligibility worker at San Diego State University and is about to embark on getting a full-time worker at University of California, San Diego.

“We’ve also done countless work in coordination and partnership with organizations like the San Diego Hunger Coalition,” he said.

He pointed out that the hunger coalition is one of the organizations in the county that receives state funds designated for outreach. The county itself doesn’t receive those funds, Wanne said.

Advocates also raised concerns over chill factors that some county programs, like Project 100% can have, which deter people to apply. Project 100% requires anyone applying for CalWORKs to agree to an unscheduled home inspection as part of the application process.

The program is currently being challenged in court by the ACLU, but is still in operation.

“Benefits are already so low,” said ACLU staff attorney Jonathan Markovitz. “To add to all the stress and humiliation that you feel, you now have to open your home to the state and law enforcement. It makes sense to think people won’t want to avail themselves of services from a county that sees them that way, unless they have to. It makes sense that this is going to be a barrier.”

Project 100% is a County Board of Supervisors policy, Wanne said, something his department doesn’t have a choice whether to enforce.

But he reiterated that nationally and statewide, CalWORKs enrollment is falling at similar rates to San Diego, suggesting aggressive enforcement efforts like Project 100% don’t have an inordinate impact on declining numbers.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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