Welfare Reform

20 Years Later: Home Searches in San Diego County

by Jonathan Markovitz

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,” (PRWOA) more commonly referred to as national “welfare reform.” The anniversary has inspired a number of articles, and even a new NPR podcast. The media’s decision to focus on the anniversary is particularly welcome, given the remarkable silence about poverty in the current presidential campaign. Despite this attention, I’m concerned that “welfare reform” tends to be thought of as a relic of the past, rather than what it really is: a series of destructive policies and laws that continue to wreck havoc on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Photo via boundless.com

It’s not just that PRWOA and related state laws have reduced benefits, kicked people off welfare before they could get on their feet, and greatly worsened extreme poverty. Welfare reform also has forced the poor to submit to various “degradation ceremonies.” These are punishing rituals that do nothing to reduce fraud or waste, but that are all too effective in stigmatizing or humiliating those who use public benefits. The best known of these rituals is drug testing of welfare applicants, though people receiving other types of benefits, like tax breaks or subsidized education, do not suffer the embarrassment of such tests.

One of the worst and most intrusive of these shaming ceremonies occurs right here in San Diego County.

San Diego is the only county in the country that requires every new applicant for cash aid (nationally, cash aid is called “TANF,” in California, it’s “CalWORKs”) who is not suspected of fraud to submit to an unannounced “home visit” from an investigator from the District Attorney’s office. The “home visitation” program is called “Project 100%” or “P100,” though CalWORKs applicants are never told its name. Indeed, they’re told very little about P100.

Applicants might be told that an investigator will come to their homes, but they are generally not told that the “visit” might include a “walk-through” of their home. “Visit” and “walk-through” are both rather Orwellian terms for a home search that can be fairly brief, lasting only minutes, but that can also be extremely intensive and humiliating, taking nearly an hour, as the investigator looks through closets, cabinets, DVD collections, refrigerators, dresser drawers, bathrooms, and laundry bags.

The DA says applicants are free to deny permission for the searches, though no one would know they have this power since applicants are never told this. The notion that the searches are “consensual” is another bit of Orwellian misdirection, since people who withhold consent will be denied benefits that are necessary for basic survival, because the investigator will report that he or she was “unable to verify eligibility.”

People aren’t free to deny “consent” when that would mean that they can’t afford to go to the doctor, pay rent, or feed their kids.

Applicants are frequently led to believe that they can be denied benefits if they are not home when the investigator arrives, even though they are generally not told when a visit will happen. Because of this, applicants often feel tremendous anxiety and frustration as they wait day after day for the investigator to show up at their homes. To be sure they are home when they need to be, they have rescheduled doctor’s appointments, stopped taking their kids to school, and even halted their job searches (a cruelly ironic side effect of a welfare program that is billed as an attempt to “prioritize engagement in the workforce,” that is, put people back to work). Applicants have described the experience of self-confinement as feeling like being sentenced to a “house arrest.”

P100 has existed almost 20 years. In 2000, the ACLU sued in federal court to end the program, but lost on most grounds in 2006. (However, one of the judges dissenting from the 9th Circuit decision not to reconsider the case rightly referred to P100 as “nothing less than an attack on the poor” in his biting opinion disagreeing with the majority of the court.)

Since then, the county has claimed that it’s reformed the program to make it less burdensome and offensive for CalWORKs applicants. There may have been some fixes, but the basic policy stands. The fact remains that only the poor are forced to open up their home to law enforcement agents when there is no basis for suspecting them of having committed any “offense” other than applying for needed benefits they have a legal right to receive.

The ACLU is currently investigating P100, to figure out exactly how the policy works today, and whether it makes sense to challenge it again. If you have experiences with P100 that you think we should know about, please contact us in a confidential intake process. Whether P100 has directly affected you or someone you know and love, it’s a living legacy of PRWOA. I hope you’ll keep this in mind as the media discusses the anniversary, especially if you hear so-called experts celebrating the “successes” of “welfare reform.”

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