This article was first published on povertylaw.org, May 19, 2015
© 2015 Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
Increasing Access to Critical Benefits Through the Rural General Assistance Project
By Lauren Hansen
Destitute and needing help, Daniel walked into his rural county’s social services office and tried to apply for food stamps and General Assistance. Although the office readily agreed to process his food stamps application, the caseworker told him that San Benito County, California, did not have a General Assistance program and simply turned him away without any cash aid.
But the caseworker erred—General Assistance is not an optional program. California mandates that each county provide General Assistance for its indigent population.
Daniel contacted his local legal aid program, California Rural Legal Assistance. Once the lawyer assigned to him found out that he had been prevented from applying for General Assistance, the lawyer contacted the Public Interest Law Project, a statewide support center specializing in General Assistance law.
Through a Public Records Act request, California Rural Legal Assistance and the Public Interest Law Project together obtained San Benito County’s General Assistance regulations. The regulations, from 1981, contained outdated and illegal provisions. Under these regulations the General Assistance grant was given in the form of vouchers to businesses that had closed long ago. Recipients were paid an unlawfully low grant amount, including almost no cash aid, with the small exception of a personal item allotment of $6, which “could conceivably [be used to purchase] aspirin or laxatives” (San Benito County General Relief Regulations (1981)). In violation of California law, San Benito County required individuals to work at below minimum wage.
These regulations had long been stored away, and current county workers were not aware of their obligation to provide this last-resort aid. Despite a high poverty rate, not one person in the county received General Assistance.
California Rural Legal Assistance and the Public Interest Law Project collaborated with San Benito County to develop current, lawful standards for the county’s General Assistance program. The county adopted its first regulations in 33 years in April 2014. These regulations guaranteed, among other improvements, the right to apply, timely application processing, and accommodations for persons with disabilities. The county’s General Assistance program’s caseload has increased from zero to a high of 149 (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. Percentage of people who are in poverty and receive General Assistance in San Benito County, California
For a small rural county, this increase is astounding. In fact, when controlling for differences in population, San Benito County now ranks in the top ten performing counties in California.
The problem, however, is not confined to San Benito County. After reviewing statewide statistics, we saw a pattern—rural counties had abysmally low General Assistance caseloads. Over 20 of the 58 counties in California, including those rural counties with high numbers of people living in poverty, have fewer than 40 people receiving General Assistance. Some have zero or fewer than 10 recipients. People in poverty in rural areas cannot access General Assistance in the same way as those in poverty in urban areas.
In response, the Public Interest Law Project established the Rural General Assistance Project (Rural GAP). Through Rural GAP the Public Interest Law Project seeks to increase access to the critical benefits under General Assistance and assist local advocates in enforcing counties’ legal duty to provide General Assistance to all needy county residents. Although Rural GAP is California-focused, it could be adapted for other states that have a version of General Assistance.
General Assistance in California: The Legal Framework
General Assistance is the state-mandated program of last resort for persons who are without dependents and are completely destitute: “Every county … shall relieve and support all incompetent, poor, indigent persons and those incapacitated by age, disease, or accident” when such persons are not otherwise supported. A county must provide “appropriate aid and services to all of its needy and distressed” and do so “promptly and humanely.” Each county meets its obligation to provide “aid” to meet basic needs through a General Assistance cash grant or an in-kind assistance program or both.
Recipients often are homeless, and most are unemployed and unemployable. Many recipients have disabilities or are veterans or both. A significant number are survivors of domestic violence and fleeing their abusers. General Assistance allows survivors to find modest shelter, such as a shared room, and to begin to become self-sufficient.
To be eligible, an applicant must have almost no assets, and any income is deducted, dollar-for-dollar, from the grant amount. Counties must provide a minimum of about $340 per month to severely impoverished lawful residents, but counties can apportion part of the grant as in-kind aid, most often in the form of a shelter bed. Some counties have moved partially or completely to a “care not cash” model. Many counties implement a variation of this approach, insisting on remitting a recipient’s rent directly to the recipient’s landlord and paying the recipient the balance of the grant amount. County requirements for verifying the rent amount, or the legitimacy of the recipient’s tenancy, often result in recipients’ General Assistance being terminated or drastically curtailed because the landlords do not follow the county’s verification rules.
People in poverty in rural areas cannot access General Assistance in the same way as those in poverty in urban areas.
A county may impose time limits on those deemed employable. Most counties in California do have a time limit, which can be as low as three months per year. State law also allows counties to condition aid on the recipients’ fulfilling various requirements such as attending job training, making some monthly number of in-person job applications for available jobs, or attending substance-abuse counseling. Recipients’ aid may be terminated for failing, without “good cause,” to comply with these requirements. Some counties conduct work projects in which “employable” recipients are required to participate, with their earnings being used to pay off the grant.
General Assistance in California is considered a loan. If an applicant successfully applies for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and receives a retroactive payment, the payment is used to repay any General Assistance benefits that the applicant received while the SSI application was pending. Although General Assistance provides a meager amount of money, this meager amount is often life-sustaining for individuals.
Counties erect barriers to accessing benefits, and these barriers are particularly acute in rural counties. General Assistance law is ripe for advocacy because counties often fashion their General Assistance program illegally, and as a result hundreds, if not thousands, are prevented from accessing the benefits to which they are entitled.
General Assistance Nationwide
Thirty states across the country had some form of General Assistance program as of 2011. The programs vary—some programs provide benefits only to those who have disabilities, and others provide benefits to “employable” people. As in California, the benefit levels are extremely low. In most states the maximum benefit is less than half of the federal poverty line.
According to the 2010 census, approximately 59 million people reside in rural areas. Of the states that have General Assistance programs, the following are considered to be the “most rural” in that over 20 percent of the population live in rural areas: Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia.
Accessing Benefits in Rural Areas
According to the latest statistics, 138,150 people receive General Assistance in California, but just four urban counties make up 80 percent of the General Assistance population statewide (Los Angeles, 87,353; Alameda, 10,786; Sacramento, 6,743; and San Francisco, 5,725). In many rural counties where the percentage of persons in poverty exceeds the national standard, inexplicably very few, or even zero, people receive General Assistance.
Accessing public benefits in rural areas is difficult. Often, and in particular because of budgetary constraints, a county has only one social services office, and it is located miles from a would-be recipient’s home. Lack of public transportation hampers people, especially those with disabilities, from coming into the office to apply. Those in poverty in rural areas are socially and geographically isolated. Service providers in larger counties are often the ones informing people that they might be eligible for General Assistance. But many rural counties have few, if any, service providers. Furthermore, access to legal services is notoriously difficult—very few advocates are located in these areas, and they cannot possibly serve everyone in need.
Rural GAP seeks to overcome difficulties in accessing General Assistance, and its overall goal is to increase access to General Assistance benefits.
Rural GAP’s Multipronged Approach to Advocacy. Rural GAP employs a three-pronged approach: outreach and education to the community, administrative advocacy, and, if needed, litigation.
Outreach and Education. To ensure access to General Assistance benefits, advocates must take a proactive approach. In counties with small or no caseloads, legal aid advocates often do not encounter problems with General Assistance simply because the clients never walk in and ask for help. Advocates must educate the community, often through homeless advocacy groups, that individuals are eligible for these benefits and explain the parameters of the General Assistance program. For example, in San Benito County, after a local homeless advocacy group became aware of these “new” benefits, the group referred potentially eligible people to the local social services office. The office also agreed to reach out to the community to make people aware of General Assistance. A mere explanation of the availability of General Assistance, as well as the eligibility guidelines, can make a huge difference.
Administrative Advocacy. Much can be accomplished by directing advocacy to the agency that administers the benefits. For example, in one county, advocates convinced the agency to stop cutting the cash grant down to just $19 for those homeless General Assistance recipients who accepted a shelter bed. Other advocates have successfully had the time limit eliminated or at least made longer than three months. Establishing a constructive dialogue with the county agency is essential to ensure that it meets its obligations under the law and supports its indigent population.
Litigation Support. Through Rural GAP, and consistent with its mission as a statewide support center, the Public Interest Law Project partners with local organizations in the event that litigation is necessary to ensure that the county complies with state law. Litigation can be a useful tool because it often achieves results more quickly than engaging in months, or even years, of protracted advocacy.
Although litigation is not always necessary, through it the Public Interest Law Project and other organizations have produced significant results. In Mankinen v. County of Orange the Public Interest Law Project—along with the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund—brought a class action that resulted in a top-to-bottom redesign of Orange County’s General Assistance program. The county’s General Assistance caseload went from 325 to just over 4,448 per month (see fig. 2).
Figure 2. Percentage of people who are in poverty and receive General Assistance in Orange County, California
In Versis v. County of Marin the Public Interest Law Project and Bay Area Legal Aid challenged Marin County’s application barriers and delays, unlawful sanctions, and lack of fair-hearing procedures. After settlement, the caseload increased from 470 to 1,028 (see fig. 3).
Figure 3. Percentage of people who are in poverty and receive General Assistance in Marin County, California
In Lugo v. Contra Costa County the Public Interest Law Project and Bay Area Legal Aid challenged unlawful application delays and failure to pay aid retroactive to the application date. Contra Costa County agreed to change its policies and issue lump-sum corrective payments to non-named parties who had applied for General Assistance for a specified period (see fig. 4).
Figure 4. Percentage of people who are in poverty and receive General Assistance in Contra Costa County, California
When legal aid advocates try to improve access to General Assistance benefits through either litigation or administrative advocacy, the results are striking.
Statewide General Assistance Summit. Advocates from 17 organizations came together in September 2014 for a summit on General Assistance in California. The day involved a substantive training on General Assistance law, an overview of the legislative history of General Assistance in California, and a presentation on outreach and advocacy strategies. The day culminated in advocates producing ideas for a 2015 General Assistance advocacy work plan. One participant explained the worth of the summit:
I found the [General Assistance] Summit to be a very rewarding experience. As attendees of the Summit addressed, the [General Assistance] population is the most marginalized and the most stigmatized group in our communities. It was inspiring to sit in a room full of advocates, seasoned and new, working toward strategic and systemic solutions for holding counties responsible for these vulnerable citizens. Conversations like this should be happening with much more frequency [(Email from Lauren Sanchez, Managing Attorney, Legal Services of Northern California, Shasta Office, to me (Jan. 26, 2015) (in my files))].
Through its Rural GAP, the Public Interest Law Project seeks to continue such conversations.
Every county is different—while one outreach or administrative advocacy strategy might be appropriate in one community, it will not be in another. To that end, the Public Interest Law Project works with the local community to develop a plan that is tailored to its needs and that encompasses all available strategies.