By John Lawrence
San Diego’s Project 100 (P100) program involves intrusive, invasive home searches by law enforcement officials from the DA’s office for everyone that applies for welfare benefits.
These searches are unannounced and the potential welfare beneficiary must be at home whenever the investigator chooses to come or else they will be denied benefits. This makes it difficult for someone who has even a part time job.
When the investigator comes, as we reported last time, he will look for any evidence that the applicant has lied on her application. That could be a pair of work boots in a single mother’s closet or a pair of sexy panties in her underwear drawer, evidence of a boyfriend who could help her pay bills.
Some of these situations approach the Kafkaesque as stifling bureaucracy is combined with clueless non sequiturs on the part of the DA’s office to produce epidemic frustration and humiliation for poor people applying for a modest amount of help. Such was the case for a Latino couple, Diego and Anna Alvarez, who jumped through seemingly impossible hoops while trying to get a little help. The following is freely adapted from Matt Taibbi’s book, The Divide.
Anna and Diego met at the gym in early 2011 and fell in love. At first they were doing quite well. They were both working – Anna at Carl’s Jr and Diego at Panda Express.
“I was making pretty decent money there,” Diego said. “We were doing OK.”
“We were able to pay our rent,” Anna said.
Then Panda Express downsized, Diego lost his job and at about the same time Anna got pregnant. She was not going to be able to keep her job on the night shift at Carl’s Jr which required a two hour bus ride each way. In late 2011 they made the decision to go on benefits to help them at least through the birth of the baby.
Trying to get help at the welfare office is a little like trying to get a ticket to a Rolling Stones concert in the 1970s. You have to camp out in front long before they open for business. Then you go in, take a number and wait … and wait … and wait. You sit there all day long while people scream and yell around you. You bring your kids and their lunches. You have to be careful taking them to the bathroom to be sure you don’t miss your number when they call it.
“It’s worse in the afternoon,” says Anna. “The kids get hungry and they start screaming and acting out.”
If you’re lucky, you get your meeting the same day. Otherwise, you have to come back. If you get approved, they tell you to go home and wait for the P100 inspector to come and search your house. You have no idea when he will arrive, but you better be home when he comes; otherwise you won’t get any benefits.
The couple handled their vigil in shifts. Usually Anna stayed home while Diego went out to his new job at Little Caesar’s. The inspector showed up 6 days later. Despite the fact that Diego and Anna were doing everything right, they still ran into immense problems.
Diego had immigration status because his mother had been the victim of domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, signed into law by Bill Clinton, gave temporary immigration status to victims of domestic violence. Diego had had his U visa since 2006 and had qualified to receive his own benefits as an adult for two years but he only applied for food stamps.
Anna, however, applied for the full CalWORKs package. CalWORKs is a welfare program that gives cash aid and services to eligible needy California families. They went into the Market Street Family Resource Center (FRC) in December 2011, and at first everything seemed fine.
“The woman was really nice,” Anna said. “We had no problems at all. She told us we qualified.”
The rules surrounding who qualifies for benefits are opaque and seemingly incomprehensible. In Diego’s and Anna’s case they could not have an income of more than $714 a month and still have qualified for CalWORKs. Everything stated on the application form better be correct – no mistakes tolerated – or else they could be jailed for 3 years for lying about cash aid and up to 20 years for lying with regard to food stamps.
You’re then asked 19 questions such as “How much income does everyone, including children, get or will get this month?” That means everyone in your household. God forbid there are any relatives also experiencing hard times that might be eating any of your food.
If you’re on any kind of public assistance you have to fill out a form every quarter and attest to questions like “Who do you live with?”, whether or not you have a car, where you work, how much you make and so on. If any of this doesn’t jibe with what the state knows or thinks it knows, you might be headed down the road to a fraud case.
As the New Year rolled around Diego and Anna started thinking that they would get through their present situation OK, and they started thinking about the time when they would be able to get off the benefits. Diego was working again at Little Caesar’s. Anna was getting $246. monthly in cash benefits from CalWORKs and they both were getting food stamps.
Then they got a letter in the mail.
Almost immediately after receiving their first month’s benefits, Anna got a letter stating that, upon further review, the state had ruled that Diego was not eligible for benefits. Therefore, Anna – not Diego! – now owed the state $148. to compensate for the month of food stamps that Diego had “improperly” received. Even though the state was wrong and Diego did qualify for food stamps, that didn’t matter. They were told to pay back the money or else the money would be withheld from their paychecks. And then more notices began coming in. One informed them that Diego had earned more than $700. in January.
In fact Diego had gotten only one paycheck from Little Caesar’s and it was for a total of $36! In late January they went to the FRC to try and straighten things out. This was one of ten different trips they would make there in a short period of time. In the course of that meeting something strange happened. Diego saw that the caseworker had his photo ID on file. When he asked for a copy of that document, the caseworker exploded. He got up, threw a pair of scissors down on the desk and stomped out. Not surprisingly, nothing got resolved at that meeting.
Although the couple tried to enjoy the last month before their baby was born, the notices kept coming. By March there would be more than 20 of them, mostly harping about the food stamp money. Then two weeks before their son Jonah was born, they got a bombshell in the mail.
Anna said: “It said I had received an overpayment. They said I had received $516. in cash aid. But I’d actually received only $246. I had the stubs to prove it and everything.”
As a result of this “overpayment”, Anna was now permanently denied benefits. Both young people were pushed off the rolls due to errors made by the state. The total amount of “overpayment” was now perilously close to the $400. figure which is considered the minimum threshold for the state to press a fraud case. As it was, the Alvarezes were going to be out at least that much money in taxes which would be taken out of future paychecks earned by either Diego or Anna.
According to the state, Diego and Anna had committed fraud at least three times: (1) when Diego received benefits without qualifying for them (which he actually did); (2) when Diego lied about his January earnings (which he didn’t); (3) when Anna overcollected in cash aid (which she didn’t) without paying the money back.
After all this Anna and Diego were in a stressed out state of panic. They could be charged with a crime at any time, and once so charged chances are they would be convicted and sent to jail. In addition to having an uphill climb just to keep food on the table, she and her husband were in a situation where one wrong move, one wrong number on some form, one slip of the tongue, one computer error and they would be in legal jeopardy forever. “It is literally dangerous to be poor,” said Joni Halpern, a San Diego lawyer who has spent the last decade defending people on public assistance.
The young couple’s only hope was to get some volunteer lawyer to help them sort things out before their situation turned into a criminal case. And it had to be sorted out post haste because once prosecutors file in a case like this, it’s over.
“Welfare recipients are so unsympathetic that public defenders don’t even bother trying to fight the cases,” said Hilda Chan, a young lawyer who works with the poor in San Diego.
The frustrating thing is that, every time Anna and Diego tried to get their case resolved, they found themselves dealing with a different case worker. They had to start all over again and explain everything from the beginning which they wouldn’t have had to do if they were assigned to the same caseworker each time. Like Kafka in a room with many doors where every door leads to the same room all over again, this young couple had been put in a box for which there was no exit door. There was no way out.
They might think they’re talking to a social worker, someone who is there to help them, and find out later that they were actually talking to a fraud investigator, someone who is trying to put them in jail.
In San Diego welfare caseworkers and fraud investigators working for the DA’s office work out of the same building. San Diego has satellite DA’s offices in the welfare office. In fact there are so many welfare workers that have migrated to law enforcement that they have their own union and their own lobbyists. In California it is called the California Welfare Fraud Investigators Association. It has lobbied for more welfare fraud prosecution and investigation much in the same way that lobbyists for the private prison industry lobby for more criminal prosecutions.
This results in huge numbers of fraud cases – not for banksters, who, despite their many fraudulent activities, have gotten away scot free, but for the poorest of the poor. Counties like San Diego file upwards of 40 or 50 cases a month. At the end of 2007 there were more than 52,000 welfare fraud investigations pending in California. DAs love these cases because they almost never lose.
In cases like Anna’s and Diego’s a numerical glitch can turn into a criminal charge, and people really do end up in jail. It could be that a caseworker at a FRC sees an applicant leaving in a nice car or a P100 investigator sees a nice pair of Victoria’s Secret panties in a dresser drawer or a neighbor calls in with a tip in exchange for a cash award. “No one can snitch you off like your ex or your ex’s girlfriend or your neighbor or your landlord,” says one former California district attorney whose county in the late 1990s processed more than a hundred fraud cases a month.
I find the majority’s analysis troubling in several respects. To begin, the majority admittedly draws a “fine line” between searches to determine eligibility and those aimed at investigating fraud. In practice, the distinction is one without a difference. In verifying eligibility, fraud investigators – as their job title suggests – necessarily are investigating potential fraud through their enforcement of welfare laws and regulations. Indeed … the investigators testified that as peace officers they have a duty to – and do – look for and report evidence of crimes.
Thus, we do not, as the majority suggests, deal here with a visitation that “serves to discourage misrepresentation or fraud” as a mere “byproduct of that visit,” as was the case in Wyman [a precedent case]. At the same time, the majority overlooks a key distinction between the New York home visits and those carried out by the County of San Diego, namely, that the Project 100% home visits have only a minimal, if any, rehabilitative function. The record reveals that the program is operated exclusively by the District Attorney’s Public Assistance Fraud Division, which is the County’s Special Investigative Unit (SIU), as an “early fraud prevention and detection program;” the County’s welfare agency does not exercise any supervisory responsibility over the program. Thus, whereas in Wyman the home visits were conducted by social workers who had “profound responsibility” for the aid recipient, here the visits are conducted by agents of the district attorney charged only with verifying welfare eligibility and detecting fraud using investigative techniques. Unlike in Wyman, these fraud investigators do not interview the applicant inside the home to discuss “any changes in [the applicant’s] situation that might affect her eligibility [or] the amount of [her] assistance, and [whether] there are any social services which the Department of Social Services can provide to the family.” Quite the contrary, the County’s fraud investigators are trained not to give advice to applicants because their focus is “highly limited” to legal compliance. According to the defendants themselves, the program’s objective is not to assist the needy, but to “increase welfare fraud prevention efforts and to increase program integrity.” Thus, that the fraud investigators are not exclusively engaged in a criminal investigation does not alter an important purpose of the home visits, which is to investigate and detect welfare fraud.
Finally, it is far from clear that Project 100% forbids “snooping,” … When walking through the welfare applicant’s home, a fraud investigator may request to look at the contents of bedrooms, closets, kitchens, bathrooms, medicine cabinets and drawers in search of evidence of ineligibility or fraud. The majority reasons that because consent is required, the investigator’s activity “cannot fairly be characterized as ‘snooping.’ ” But obtaining consent to snoop cannot change the nature of the ensuing conduct – snooping – any more than obtaining consent to search changes the nature of the search that follows. The question is whether looking in medicine cabinets, laundry baskets, closets and drawers for evidence of welfare fraud – even with consent – constitutes snooping. I doubt my colleagues in the majority would disagree that an IRS auditor’s asking to look in such places within their own homes to verify the number of dependents living at home would constitute snooping.
The majority concludes that the Project 100% home visits, even if considered searches, were reasonable under both the Supreme Court’s decision in Wyman and its subsequent line of “special needs” cases. Respectfully, I disagree. Neither Wyman nor the special needs doctrine renders constitutional the entry and inspection of homes under Project 100% by agents of the district attorney without warrants, probable cause or individualized suspicion of ineligibility or fraud.
Project 100% clearly makes the price of welfare assistance the waiver of both federal and state constitutional rights, with consent being coerced by the threat of denial of benefits. This is precisely the sort of conditioning of benefits that California’s unconstitutional conditions doctrine forbids.
Editor’s note: The outcome or resolution for the case involving Anna and Diego was not mentioned in Matt Taibbi’s book. Taibbi was contacted but had not responded by the time of this publication.