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Looking for help for middle-class recession victims

April 1, 2009 |  7:00 am

In an effort to help unemployed middle-class workers who do not qualify for government aid, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said this week that the county should pursue temporary state and federal waivers of eligibility requirements for cash aid, food stamps and housing benefits.

“As more and more people lose their jobs and search in vain for new ones in a shrinking job market, many families are finding themselves, often for the first time, with inadequate funds to pay their rent or mortgage, keep their utilities and provide food for their children,” Molina said, citing a story in The Times last Thursday.

Molina noted that each month, more than 7,000 families apply for and are denied access to CalWorks, welfare for families, and more than 19,000 have their food-stamp applications denied.

Those numbers show a marked increase from last year. In February, the county denied about 18% more CalWorks applications than the same month last year. Among those who applied for and received CalWorks were 674 two-parent families, 37% more than the same month last year.

Food stamp denials were up 14%, general relief denials were up 10% and Medi-Cal denials were up 7%.
Social services offices in surrounding counties have seen a similar increase in aid applications and denials.

“People don’t realize the asset limitations. If you have a BMW, that’s going to be more than the asset requirements,” said Terry Lynn Fisher, spokeswoman for Orange County Social Services. “People tend to become irate because they paid into the system and find they don’t qualify.”

Sayori Baldwin, deputy director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said they are denying about half of those who apply for CalWorks and food stamps, despite the fact that “individuals are in crisis more than what we’ve seen in the past.”

Molina’s proposal, which supervisors will consider at Tuesday’s meeting, directs the county’s chief executive, lobbyists and social services officials to pursue legislation or temporary waivers to relax the income and eligibility requirements for CalWorks, food stamps and housing assistance provided under the federal stimulus.

Food stamp eligibility requirements are issued by the federal government, while CalWorks requirements are set by the state.

“It’s getting a little more desperate for some families,” Molina said. “And we have to raise these issues with Sacramento and Washington.”

To qualify for CalWorks, a family of four cannot earn more than $1,218 a month or have more than $2,000 in cash or property, not including their home. If they have a car worth more than $4,650, the added value counts as property. To qualify for food stamps, an application that takes into account monthly living expenses such as rent and utilities, the same family cannot earn more than $2,297.

Legislation proposed by Assemblymen Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) and Jim Beall (D-San Jose) would increase the CalWorks asset ceiling from $6,650 to $7,000, including their car.

While the governor’s office has rejected past legislation to relax CalWorks eligibility requirements due to cost concerns, federal food stamp program officials have been more flexible, said Phil Ansell, director of program and policy for the department of social services.

“There has been something of a trend over the last decade toward a modest relaxation of asset limits, particularly relative to the value of an automobile,” Ansell said.

The food stamp program used to view cars the same way CalWorks does, with the same $4,650 limit, but within the past five years those regulations were removed, Ansell said.

Molina also asked that county officials investigate how federal stimulus money could be used to help middle-class families who don’t qualify for other housing assistance. The county is expecting to receive $12.5 million in federal stimulus money in coming months to prevent homelessness.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske