San Mateo County Welfare Experiment Axed by Judge

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed Aug 11 15:59:32 PDT 1999

{this bounced bec it had an attachment}

Date: Wed, 11 Aug 1999 13:53:49 -0700 From: Kirsten Neilsen <kirsten at>

[listers might be interested in this article about welfare "reform" in san mateo county. san mateo county is home to (smallish) parts of "silicon valley."]

San Mateo County Welfare Experiment Axed by Judge

Provisions ruled stricter than state minimums

Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle

A judge has struck down key provisions of an experimental welfare reform program in San Mateo County because they illegally denied welfare benefits to residents.

Under the county's unique welfare reform program, which began in 1997, people who apply for assistance must attend job training and look for jobs. Among other requirements, those on assistance must work 40 hours a week at a job or at an approved educational program that leads directly to work. According to county officials, the number of families on welfare has decreased by more than 50 percent since the program started.

However, the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, which filed a class-action lawsuit against the county and state in Sacramento in March, charged that San Mateo County unfairly restricted benefits beyond the minimum required by the state's CalWorks welfare reform law passed in 1997.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie agreed, ruling that the county must stop 11 practices, including:

-- Requiring applicants to participate in work programs before aid is granted,

-- Cutting off all benefits to children if their parents have a dispute with the county over the work program,

-- Requiring the disabled and other people legally exempt from work to participate in the program despite their exemption,

-- Requiring homeless families to begin work activities before emergency aid is granted, and

-- Requiring those on benefits to put in 40 hours a week at work activities, while state law requires only 32.

`We're relieved,'' said Sarah Kurtz, an attorney with the East Palo Alto Community Law Project. ``These things have been a burden on these people since the beginning of the (experimental) project.''

One unidentified plaintiff in the suit, who works as a part-time baker, was told to quit her aeronautics courses at the College of San Mateo to enroll in a shorter-term training program, or face elimination of $125 to $530 a month in assistance. The suit described her as a straight-A student who could earn $37,000 a year or more as an airplane maintenance worker after finishing school.

Kurtz said that in addition to school, the woman works two part- time jobs to provide for her three children and to meet the requirement that she spend 40 hours a week in the classroom and in work activities.

Under the new ruling, she will have to spend only 32 hours a week at work and school, Kurtz said.

Casey McKeever, directing attorney of the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento, who has worked on welfare reform in California for 15 years, said San Mateo County's program is the only one of its kind.

``I don't think any (counties) have approached the kinds of things that San Mateo County has done,'' McKeever said. ``Some things violated essential protections that even (former) Gov. (Pete) Wilson and Republicans in the Legislature were willing to agree to. The judge found what San Mateo County is doing violates the floor of protections that exist in California's welfare reforms law.''

In order to enact its experimental program, the county relied on a waiver granted by the state Department of Social Services. The waiver, which was based on state welfare law that preceded the CalWorks reforms, was granted on the condition that the project did not change eligibility or reduce benefits.

In a tentative ruling dated July 30, Robie found that San Mateo County's project did affect eligibility. In addition, the judge said, ``There is no explicit statutory language providing that programs approved under prior law remain valid under the CalWorks law.''

San Mateo County Counsel Tom Casey said the county would work on the changes with the East Palo Alto Community Law Project and submit them to the judge for approval.

Nonetheless, ``we felt strongly that the particular tailoring for our project was very effective -- people were getting jobs,'' Casey said. ``The whole goal is to get people jobs and get them off welfare, and it appeared to be working.''

Since 1997, the county has reduced the number of families receiving Temporary Aid for Needy Families (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children) from 6,500 to about 2,500, county officials said.

The monthly assistance payment for a mother and two children is roughly $611.

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle Page A15

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