Since March, Hilda Chan has been pulling numbers from the narrow columns and rows that make up the California Department of Social Services' monthly county-by-county look at food-stamp program caseloads. The volunteer researcher with the Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN), an organization that advocates for low-income families, wanted to track what she describes as a “growing and unique bottleneck” in San Diego County's food-assistance application process.
Federal law says counties must approve or deny applications within 30 days, and, so far, according to Chan's calculations, San Diego County's performance has been dismal: In 2008, four out of 10 applications, on average, weren't processed within 30 days compared with the state average of less than one in 10. And, for the first three months of 2009, the county failed to process almost half of all applications on time—a rate roughly seven times greater than the average of all other California counties.
“More than 30 days is a long time to wait for help if you are out of money, out of luck and maybe out of your apartment and out of food,” said Matt Sharp, director of the L.A. office for California Food Policy Advocates.
Chan's research is part of a larger study that SPIN and another advocacy group, The Caring Council, plan to release next month that looks closely at the county's flailing food-assistance program. A 2006 report by the Food Research and Action Center singled out San Diego County for having the lowest food-stamp-program participation rate of the nation's 24 largest metropolitan areas. The study found that only about one-third of county residents eligible for food assistance were receiving it. A 2008 report by the same group found that because of the low enrollment, the county was losing out on more than $100 million in 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.
Any good researcher knows that to better understand a problem, you have to find out when it first became a problem. Last week, Chan ran the numbers going back to 2000, and the results were surprising: Until 2006, San Diego County was, apparently, an all-star when it came to churning through applications, doing better than the state average.
“How did we so rapidly lose our ability to process food-stamps applications in a timely manner?” Chan wants to know.
That's the question no one seems able to answer. In June 2006, when the noncompliance rate started to creep upward, San Diego County switched to a new computer system that's caused problems for other counties, but CFPA's Sharp doubts that's what's behind such a large increase in application delays.
“That doesn't seem like that's what would have caused it—I mean the computer broke and, three years later, they haven't fixed it?”
Since May 7, CityBeat's been asking the county about SPIN's numbers. We wanted to know whether they jibe with the county's own numbers. They should: The data Chan's been using comes directly from reports the county is required to send to the state.
Kim Forrester, assistant deputy director at the county's Heath and Human Services Agency, declined to comment until her department has a chance to do a complete review of the data. That, she said, could take weeks.
“We know there's room for improvement,” Forrester said. “We're focusing on trying to provide faster services and better access.”
On April 21, the county Board of Supervisors approved a three-year plan, titled “Healthy Opportunities During an Unhealthy Economy,” with the goal of increasing food-assistance participation rates and making the application process more efficient. The plan doesn't call for an increase in staffing levels, though, and that has advocates worried. They're concerned that more applicants—stemming from greater outreach efforts and the bad economy—will only mean more applications being processed outside the deadline. Chan also found that as 30-day noncompliance rates went up, so too did the number of applications withdrawn before they could be processed rate. Chan said that, anecdotally, she's heard of eligible applicants who've been pressured by county staff to withdraw their applications.
“People don't generally withdraw their applications on their own accord,” she said.
Not meeting federal deadlines is a problem that's not unique to San Diego. In Maryland, a group of attorneys are suing the state over a backlog of thousands of food-stamps and medical-assistance applications. The lawsuit blames staffing shortages, the result of state budget cuts. Similar lawsuits have been filed in New York and Indiana and, in January, attorneys from the Western Center on Law and Poverty filed a lawsuit against Orange County on behalf of four people whose public-assistance applications weren't processed within the federal timeframe.
Advocates have long argued that an over-emphasis on anti-fraud measures is partially responsible for delays.
“There has long been a sentiment on the part of county officials and the Board of Supervisors that people who are needy… are predisposed to laziness and lying,” said Joni Halpern, SPIN's executive director.
CityBeat spoke with one applicant—a single mom with three kids who asked to remain anonymous—who applied for food stamps and cash aid in March and was told she'd have to wait until June to start receiving benefits.
“I gave them all the paperwork. I'm calling them every day,” she said. “It's just wait, wait, wait.” She said a county investigator has been to her house—a requirement for anyone who applies for cash aid—and saw that she didn't have food in her refrigerator.
When Janice Campbell and her husband went to turn in their application, she was told that she didn't need to show them her husband's social security card—that she only needed to list the number on the couple's application.
“He had it right there, ready to hand it to her,” Campbell said. “We tried to give it to them and they said they didn't need it.”
The Campbells provided bank statements, old paycheck stubs, utility bills, a copy of their rental agreement, copies of their drivers' licenses and statements from their employers and were both fingerprinted. Janice Campbell received an electronic benefits card and was told it would be activated within 24 hours. It wasn't. Campbell said she called the county and left messages but never received a return phone call. Finally, Daniela Solano, an outreach worker at the San Diego Food Bank, intervened. She was told that Campbell had until 4 p.m. the next day to bring in her husband's social security card and a copy of the couple's tax return—to check the card against—or else her application would be denied. “If it wasn't for Daniela following up,” Campbell said, she'd have to start the process all over again.
The requirement to show an actual copy of a social security card, Solano said, “is not enforced by the state and it's not enforced by the federal [government]. The county does it just to prevent fraud. All they needed from her is: What's your social security number—let's match it up with his name.”
If Campbell's application had been denied, it would have been chalked up to client error—failure to provide the necessary documents in time—even though she'd been given wrong information. The numbers Chan has been working on, though, are based on delays due to errors made by county staff.
Lizelda Lopez, spokesperson for the state Department of Social Services, said that last year San Diego County was warned about its failure to process applications within the 30-day processing timeframe and was told to submit a plan to the state detailing how it would remedy the situation.
“We've asked them to submit a corrective-action plan, and they haven't submitted it,” Lopez said, despite follow-up requests. “Based on your call, we're going to give them a call to check in with them and see what's going on.”
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