Cutbacks and the Poor


AIDA REYES: We always are looking for a scapegoat in regards to what the budget crisis is.

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Aida Reyes has a master’s degree but volunteers all her time for a low-income parental support program called SPIN, enjoying this church-sponsored picnic in a San Diego park.

REYES: And who else is the easiest scapegoat than the poor people, the people who’ve always is never heard.

SEVERSON: California has been hit hard by the ailing economy. Over a million jobs have been lost since 2007. Even San Diego, advertised as America’s finest city, has seen the numbers of those living in poverty increase to over 300,000. Joni Halpern is a lawyer who founded SPIN.

JONI HALPERN: So I see more homeless, people who’ve never been poor before, I see those now. People who’ve lost houses, jobs, cars; people who have never ever expected that they’d be on public assistance. I see those now, too.

SEVERSON: Even as welfare rolls are increasing, San Diego, like local governments everywhere, has been forced to cut programs for those in need, like those at this picnic, programs like child welfare. Advocates for the poor say it is even more difficult in San Diego because of the county’s unusual and controversial program created to police welfare fraud. It’s called Project 100 Percent, and it’s extremely unusual because it stipulates that a fraud investigator will visit unannounced anyone applying for welfare or cash assistance. Critics say it treats those in need, like some of the people here, as criminals. County officials say it’s an ethical way to save taxpayers money.

PRODUCER: Project 100 Percent, do you think it’s working?

post01-cutbacksJOHN HALEY: Absolutely.

SEVERSON: John Haley manages Project 100 Percent’s fraud investigators.

HALEY: Project 100 Percent provides an integrity component to the public aid that goes out to those people in need, and without that integrity program then there is no way to insure that the monies go out to the people that are actually eligible, deserving, and actually have the need.

REYES: It’s terrible. I think it’s a way of criminalizing poverty, and it is a way of making people feel ashamed of asking for help.

SEVERSON: Maria Orozco, who now works full time to help those applying for aid, says a few years ago she needed help. When she applied for welfare the fraud investigator came to her house.

(speaking to Maria Orozco): It was a pretty degrading experience, was it?

MARIA OROZCO: Yes, because I mean my dirty clothes, you know, your purse, you know. What if you have something not to be shown or something?

HALEY: We do not set up appointments, we just show up. And we just make sure that all the facts that they have presented to their case worker are correct. And if there are any allegations of maybe the absent parent’s in the home or one of the children actually doesn’t live at the home, then we can ask questions about that stuff. So it’s not really intrusive.

post07-cutbacksLILIANA: This is Jasmin’s, my sister’s bed and her space over here. My mom and my nephew Aiden sleep in this bed.

SEVERSON: Liliana lives in this tiny two-bedroom apartment with her mom, Yolanda, her sister, Jasmin, and their two children.

JASMIN: I love working and actually I miss working. But I went to welfare because I needed the help, because I was laid off and I needed the help from the government, but they make it really hard.

LILIANA: If we have maybe a t-shirt that might be a man’s t-shirt but we wear it, they think that we have a man living here, and since they’re not on the application, then they pretend you know like we’re lying or something. I don’t know what they look for.

SEVERSON: Bill Oswald is an associate professor at Springfield College’s School of Human Services in San Diego and an outspoken critic of Project 100 Percent.

BILL OSWALD: And any inconsistency they might find there, and I could fill this time with stories of inconsistencies, like your application says two adults but there’s three adult tooth brushes here, that’s an inconsistency so the investigator checks that off, and then when it goes back to Health and Human Services they say, “Oh, potential fraud,” and they deny you benefits.

HALEY: It’s just another piece of information that we collect. It doesn’t mean that they are going to be denied. We have run into cases where the absent parent was reported to be in another state, for instance, and we show up, and they’re there at the apartment, and they are actually working somewhere, and there is money coming in that wasn’t reported. So that is what we are out there for, just to verify the facts.

post08-cutbacksSEVERSON: County officials say their efforts have saved taxpayers millions of dollars, that they have prevented or detected fraud in nearly one out of four welfare applications. But a state audit report earlier this year says that number is not verifiable. Bill Oswald says Project 100 Percent has actually prevented worthy recipients from receiving aid.

OSWALD: For us it’s not the issue that you’re checking for fraud. We think that’s a reasonable thing to do, because you got to protect the public dollar. It’s when you create a program that is, makes it difficult to get the benefit and then doesn’t demonstrate any benefit to the county or the state or the taxpayer. So we’re paying for a program that no one can prove has any impact.

HALEY: If we did not have Project P-100 or the public assistance fraud division or our efforts, then fraud would probably go through the roof, especially with the economy now and the identity theft that is going on—things like that.

SEVERSON: Critics say county officials appear to be more focused on fraud than hunger, that they neglected to apply for millions of dollars in temporary assistance for needy families and their record of food stamp distribution is one of the worst. Low-income residents also complain that San Diego has been stingy with food stamps.

HILDA CHAN: One woman that helped out last Friday applied, waited, waited, waited and finally got a notice in the mail, the notice of action, they’re called, saying you’re denied because you do not want food stamps. Anything under the sun—it’s just unbelievable.

SEVERSON: Hilda Chan is a law student at Berkeley and a SPIN volunteer who helps parents needing food stamps maneuver through the welfare bureaucracy.

post05-cutbacksCHAN: We are the lowest metropolitan area in the nation for five years straight for food stamp participation. We have about a third of people who are eligible, families and individuals who are poor enough to qualify for food stamps. Out of all of them in San Diego only a third of them are getting them.

SEVERSON: She says many people think that illegal or undocumented immigrants clog welfare rolls and then receive public benefits.

CHAN: You can’t get public benefits if you are undocumented.


CHAN: Period.

OSWALD: The assumption is that they are lazy people. They are people with no real work values. I mean for a lot of times we talk about the culture of poverty, which says people who are poor are people who can’t delay gratification. You’re not motivated to do anything in the long run, you’re promiscuous, and that’s generally our image of people who are in poverty, and it’s been that way for a very long time.

SEVERSON: Oswald doesn’t deny that there are cheaters but says he thinks that most people, like Lilana’s mother, would rather work than take a government handout.

LILANA: My mom is saying that another income we have is that she goes around like to the park and around the blocks. She collects cans to recycle. To wake up at four in the morning and walk around the streets is really strong of her.

post06-cutbacksHALPREN: And I’ve been in their homes. I’ve been in their schools. I’ve been in their churches. I’ve wrapped my arms around their family members, and I do not see this disgraceful population of people who don’t appreciate the work ethic. They are the people who do every crappy job that no one else wants to do, and they do it for less than anyone else is willing to do it for.

SEVERSON: John Haley says his investigators are doing what the taxpayers want them to do.

HALEY: You know, as someone who is contributing to this as a tax payer, wouldn’t you want some kind of assurances that the monies that you’re paying and contributing are going to the people that actually need it? We’ve got to make sure it goes to the right people, and that’s the way I look at it.

OSWALD: Poverty is an economic condition, not a moral issue. People are not poor because they have weak characters. They’re poor for lots of different reasons, but in my experience they’re pretty the hardest working people I know.

SEVERSON: For the moms, dads, and kids at this SPIN homework tutoring section, there is good news: the Board of Supervisors has finally agreed to take a closer look at Project 100 Percent. The bad news is not certain, but the state assembly is considering an emergency budget that would cut state welfare benefits even deeper. For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly I’m Lucky Severson in San Diego.

  • Joanne Faryon KPBS
  • Tom

    I am glad to see San Diego is trusting, but verifying my tax dollars. Good on them. I think your show tried to make the government look bad. There are bad people outside the government too. I have personal knowledge of people ripping off the government. If someone is not doing anything wrong then they have nothing to worry about; right?



  • Jim Platt

    OMG San Diego is where Lucky Severson ended up….WOW long ways from Salt Lake, in so many, many ways….HELLO LUCKY…

  • John

    Tom said: “If someone is not doing anything wrong then they have nothing to worry about; right?”

    Wrong. Sometimes innocent people get treated like criminals. As this story pointed out, the investigators aren’t just checking for fraud. Some are also are looking for any excuse to deny people help. The toothbrush thing is particularly ridiculous. That’s a stupid reason to deny a claim. Do you have the exact same number of toothbrushes as people in your house? If not, does that mean you’re hiding something? If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about, right?

  • Mary

    I think it’s good. I used to be a social worker and totally understand people needing help. I also personally know people working the system.

  • Lauren

    I would think that if you legitimately need help, you would be happy to provide verification of your need. Why? Because I would rather prove that I need help so that they can actually keep aid for the needy and not cut the programs because people defrauded and bankrupted the system. Saying that we are treating them like criminals because we are verifying their claims is ridiculous. Criminals are put in prison and locked away from society. Last time I checked, that is different than verifying claims for aid.

  • Joe

    Wow, if only we could have this system for the congressional oversight committees, then we could make sure there was not fraud in the Pentagon, the government, the TV evangelists, need I go on?

  • Joni Halpern

    If San Diego County were correct in its claim that Project 100% is required to verify eligibility, then the other 57 counties in California that do not use Project 100% would be unable to determine eligibility correctly and would experience rampant fraud. That is absolutely not the case. As for those who argue that if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t mind having an investigator go through your closets, drawers and refrigerators, these folks should at least question whether they are abandoning a belief long cherished in this country that the innocent person should not be treated as a criminal. And it begs the question of whether we should have a Bill of Rights in the first place, because if we’re not guilty, why would we mind if someone took away our right against self-incrimination, our right to a fair trial, to free speech, to representation, or to virtually anything else that stands in the way of government abuse of power. Finally, a long list of verifications, including rent receipts, utilities, phone, school attendance records, immunization records, legal residency and citizenship documents, SSN, fingerprints, and database checks for earnings, crime, new hires, and other items of concern are what all California counties use to verify welfare eligibility. Any application as to which there is inconsistency or suspicion is then sent for investigation. But to make the blanket assumption that anyone who applies for welfare does so because they are too lazy or fraudulent to earn their way is to ignore the causes of poverty that are pushing people into deepening poverty from which they cannot emerge. This home search of innocent persons is a perfect example of the kind of humiliation that deepens people’s despair and makes the road to self-sufficiency that much harder. As a practical matter, I wonder how many of us could go through our homes and identify objects that we acquired in better times but could not afford now, or items that belong to someone else who once lived with us; these are the grist for the Project 100% mill.

  • Roland Moe

    I’m tired of hearing about how supposed “undocumented” immigrants are being “treated” like criminals. They ARE criminals.

    Undocumented is just a way to whitewash “illegal”.

    Their being here is a slap in the face to all who have immigrated legally (including myself), waiting the 10+ years, and massive amounts of paperwork and more. Then waiting even longer once you have a green card so you can be a proud citizen of this country.

    I will not be told that someone who essentially cut in line ahead of me and is not here legally should be given anything. Criminals. Taking from the deserved American citizens and legal immigrants. They should be ashamed.

  • David

    I’m with Joe (see above). Let’s continue to have a discussion about fraud–in our financial system, in our healthcare system, in our corporate boardrooms, in our system of defense contracts, etc. In comparision, any fraud in the welfare system would amount to the proverbial drop on the bucket.

  • Keanon

    Roland they may be breaking the law but there is a way to treat people with respect and human dignity. Most not all are trying to escape places and situations most of us couldn’t imagine! We are partly to blame. Our foreign policies make the problem of illegal immigration worse. Also we American citizens can’t come to a consensus on what type of reform we should have to address the issue. So what do we do? Continue to fan the flames of hate that lead to hate crimes against people who are actually American citizens but just so happen to be Hispanic (or have brown skin)? If America is so Christian, so moral, why have we not tried to help these countries rise out of poverty, war, and corruption so they nice places to live and jobs so they don’t come here illegally? Maybe because we benefit from it in so way.

  • Christine

    America is the only Westernized country without Socialized Medical for everyone. America worries so much about having to pay for “someone else” or worried that someone is “not working”. American’s all pay tax’s, if your alive, you buy something, you pay a tax. The people’s tax money in America does not come back to goes where ever the government chooses…not back to you. Stand up and have a voice don’t realize, you as a people and country, are not as free and rich as you think…check around the world, compaire, don’t believe you can all make it on your own, as a country you need to pull together…don’t let the few at the top take it all to fight their own battles and make themselves rich,,reclaim your tax’s, don’t be fooled any longer, robbed blind or basicly…blindly robbed..wake-up America.

  • Liutgard

    Hmm. Roland, did you catch the part about undocumented (or illegal, if you must) people being ineligible for aid? Any aid?

    I don’t recall there being anything in any legislation or statute about welfare benefits or food stamps that said you must waive your 4th Amendment rights to receive aid. You don’t have to let a cop in without a warrant. But a welfare worker? Where is the ACLU on this?

  • Fr. ian Yorston

    Yes, the poor seem always to get the raw end of the deal. Gone is the consideration of dignity when an investigator invades the home looking for evidence. Sould we be fically responsible with public funds? Yes, and how much is this program costing? People already feel bad enough seeking public assistance, don’t dig their pit deeper.

  • Gaille

    Poverty is a terrible thing to have to live with day in and day out. Our government needs to assure that people get housing, food and medical care and education/training opportunities to better their lives. Nobody wants to be poor, just like nobody wants to have cancer. Our government (local and federal) is failing in its duty to treat all people fairly and equally. Yes, there will always be fraud, but there’s more fraud on Wall Street than there is on Main Street and maybe we should be looking more closely at that than people who are hungry and trying to keep a roof over their heads.

  • Mary Ann Szuba

    Please check the episode “Cutbacks and the Poor” for a misspelling in the Project 100 Percent document which is briefly shown on screen. There is a misspelling in the word: services. The top portion of the document reads as follows: Bill Analysis – Bill NO: SB 269
    Senate Human Servieces Committee

    I know you are not responsible for the error. Perhaps you know where to forward my correction.

    Thank you,

    Ms. Mary Ann Szuba

  • Scott

    In WI, we are TOTALLY checked before any type of Gov’mt assistance is given. My 87 y/o mother applied for food stamps and put thru the wringer–we had to fill out six pages of forms, talk to a case worker, prove income, etc. And I have no problem with that. If someone is asking the gov’mt to pay their way, then the govm’t has a responsibility to protect the taxpayer and make certain that our tax money is going to someone who does, indeed, need assistance. If you got nothing to hide, you should be happy to open up and give the info they want.

  • Wayne Schwab

    How can governments balance welfare needs with welfare cheats? Do it by being as diligent about searching out business cheats and income tax cheats among the wealthy as among the poor. And, more, be diligetn about cutting business “welfare” (tax breaks, etc.) as they are about cutting real welfare.