April 28 2009 08:08 PM

County is overhauling its food-stamp program, but what about its attitudes toward poor people?


At its April 21 meeting, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved a plan with a stated goal of adding 50,000 children and senior citizens to the county's food-stamp program during the next three years. While it's something advocates for needy families were happy to hear—participation rates in the program have been dismal—at least two local nonprofits worry that inadequate staffing in the county department that handles food-stamp applications, combined with a fixation on fraud and a fundamental misunderstanding of clients' needs, will continue to undermine how the federally funded program is run locally.

According to data the county provided to the state Department of Social Services, San Diego County fails to process roughly 40 percent of its food-stamp applications within the 30-day time limit set by state law. There's no penalty for the delay, however—an applicant's only recourse is to request an administrative hearing. And, in two federal audits conducted last year, county staff erred by denying benefits to eligible people at rates as high as twice the state average—a byproduct of an overtaxed system, said Bill Oswald, professor of sociology at San Diego's Springfield College.

“We believe that the problems people are reporting are rooted in the lack of staff,” he said. “Eligibility workers just don't have the time to keep up with their caseloads.”

A county spokesperson confirmed that no food-stamp-program staff were among the Health and Human Services Department layoffs approved by the Board of Supervisors in February. In fact, staffing has increased by 26 people since last year. But Joni Halpern, an attorney who's worked with low-income clients for a decade, described the department as “a shadow of its former self.”

“Front-line staff are saying [to applicants], ‘We can't get to you in the statutory time limits.'”

Since 2006, when a Union-Tribune story revealed that San Diego County was dead last among 24 major metropolitan areas for enrollment in the federal food-stamp program (currently referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), local advocacy groups have pushed for changes. A study by California Food Policy Advocates found that only about one-third of county residents who were eligible for food assistance were receiving it, and a 2008 study by the Food Research and Action Center found that in 2006, San Diego County lost out on more than $100 million in unclaimed federal food-assistance money. Numerous studies have found that every dollar in federal food assistance translates to $1.80 in stimulus for the local economy.

The three-year plan presented at last week's Board of Supervisors meeting, titled “Healthy Opportunities During an Unhealthy Economy,” mentions nothing about whether staffing levels should be further increased to meet rising demand. According to county numbers, between December 2007 and December 2008, food-stamp program participation grew from 100,671 individuals to 120,669.

At the April 21 meeting, Nick Macchione, director of the county Health and Human Services Department, said plans are to institute so-called “business-process reengineering”—in other words, assessing the way business is conducted with an eye toward finding ways to be more efficient.

Jennifer Tracy, a food-stamp outreach coordinator with the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said that if the county upgrades its system of processing applications, something that's proposed in the plan, it'll speed up the overall application process. Currently, though Tracy might help a client fill out an application for food-stamp assistance, a county employee then must enter all that data by hand into the computer system. But if Tracy were able to send over a client's application data electronically in a way that would bypass the need for additional data-entry, “it'll help pick up the slack,” she said.

But two local nonprofits are arguing that problems with the county system run deeper than antiquated technology. At the April 21 meeting, the Caring Council and the Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN) presented supervisors with the preliminary results of a two-month study that involved interviews with 187 people enrolled in the county's food-stamp program. The study found that “a culture of fear and degradation that places unfounded emphasis on fraud” plays a significant role in not only deterring people from signing up for food stamps but also leads to staff error and client confusion being interpreted as fraud. In addition, they say, the county's action plan “is based on a false assumption about the eating and food purchasing habits of those living in poverty.”

“I've been doing work on poverty for 30 years and I can't tell you how many ‘welfare queen' stories I've heard, yet I've never met one,” said Oswald, who oversaw the study. “The perception that you walk into a welfare office, say ‘I'm poor,' they give you money and you go home and have a party is just incredible—and the persistence of it.

“People like Pam Slater are key players in maintaining that mythology because they put it forward. If somebody on the street says it, it's one thing, but if it's an elected public official who says it, then it really has some weight, and people use that to reinforce the distorted images they already have.”

Oswald is referring to comments made by county Supervisor Pam Slater-Price at the April 21 meeting. Slater-Price suggested that prep time, not cost, deters people on food stamps from buying vegetables. And, she lamented the fact that soda and potato chips were allowable purchases under the program. “If you look at the cost of those things, a bag of chips can run you $5 or $6, so there are many better ways to spend your money than that.”

The supervisors have, twice, passed resolutions aimed at lobbying state and federal officials to change UPC codes to limit what foods can be purchased with electronic-benefits cards. (“Food stamps” is actually a misnomer since ATM-like cards that require a PIN number have replaced paper stamps.)

Slater-Price reminded people of the days when food stamps were traded for alcohol and lottery tickets and threw in the undocumented-immigrant red herring, questioning whether the relatively low number of county benefit recipients could be due to the fact that undocumented immigrants aren't eligible. (Studies on the county's low participation rate take into account only eligible residents.) Oswald wants Slater-Price, who didn't respond to a request for comment by press time, to tag along on shopping trips with the food-stamp recipients he knows.

“One thing we know is that shopping is an all-day affair for folks,” he said. “They start early in the morning; they often start the day before plotting where they're going with coupons and specials, and then they spend the day going from store to store following the bargains and figuring out what's the way to do this.

“There's an amazing science to buying,” he said, “knowing which 99-cent stores sell fresh produce and when do they put it out so you get there early enough—it flies in the face of needing to educate people on how to use their money. I've never seen a better budgeter than some of these folks.”

Studies have found that food-stamp benefits, which average about $668 a month for a family of four, or about $1.80 per meal, per person, haven't kept pace with inflation and therefore significantly limit what foods people can buy. Fresh fruits and vegetables become out-of-reach by the end of the month, studies show. 

“In the first week of the month, you will find people buy better food, and they buy it as long as they can get a bargain and buy it. Mid-month, when they're seeing [that] they're not going to have anything left for the rest of the month, that's when they start buying tortillas and Ramen noodles. What's worse? Eating Ramen noodles or not eating anything,” Halpern said.

Instead of lobbying to limit what people can buy, advocates say the county should be lobbying the state to do away with the requirement that all applicants for public assistance be fingerprinted. A 2003 report by California's state auditor found fingerprinting to be an inefficient and ineffective anti-fraud measure that costs taxpayers at least $11.4 million a year (applicants are already required to submit a government-issued photo ID and Social Security numbers for all members of their household). A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal agency that oversees the food-stamp program—found that fingerprinting deters food-stamp-program participation.

Only three states—California, Texas and Arizona—have such a requirement in place. New York did away with it last year. In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have gotten rid of the requirement; a new version of the bill is pending.

State data shows that for fiscal-year 2007-08, of the money the county gets from the state to administer the food-stamp program, roughly one-third was spent investigating fraud—or a little more than $4 million. Meanwhile, the actual rate of fraud is low: A total of 486 recipients—a little more than 1 percent of cases flagged for investigation— were cut from the program last year, while only 33 food-stamp recipients were referred to the District Attorney's office for prosecution. Out of 64,881 applications received last year, roughly 5 percent were denied benefits because of fraud.

But Lizelda Lopez, a spokesperson for the state Department of Social Services, cautioned against interpreting fraud data as actual fraud.

“Sometimes it's just errors,” she said. “It's not that somebody is trying to defraud the system purposefully.”

The San Diego Hunger Coalition's Tracy said she knows of clients who've been kicked out of the program because they've moved, left a message with a county food-stamp worker that their address needs to be updated and then found out that their case was closed because records show they're not living at the address on their initial application.

“Even though I made a good-faith effort, my case gets cut,” she said. One of the county's action plans is to create a call center specifically to handle those types of calls.

Last week, SPIN and the Caring Council asked supervisors to delay implementation of the three-year action plan until the county has time to go over the recommendations laid out in the nonprofits' study. The board went ahead with its vote, but Supervisor Ron Roberts promised that the county is open to good ideas.

Halpern doesn't hold much hope.

“You want the democratic process to work,” she said. “You want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I know you've got a lot of trouble with budgets, but here's all our suggestions; we didn't just base it on, Hm, today I'll think this. We went and did a study: Here's the people that it effects, and they're going to tell you what they saw. We know you can't do everything, but could you just give some attention to this? Could we work on this list? Could you pick the things that we can do?

“You would think, in the spirit of dialog about what is possible in the world, we could engage in that discussion. But it was impossible at the April 21 meeting. They showed us they have no interest in that.” 

The article originally said that food stamps have been replaced by EBT cards in most counties. According to the USDA, all counties nationwide use EBT cards.   

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