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From hotel rooms for people who are homeless to restaurant meals for seniors isolating for their lives, California has rapidly expanded its safety net in an attempt to catch millions of residents impacted by the coronavirus and its economic aftershocks.
In daily press conferences during the pandemic’s first months, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new “first-in-the-nation” plans to protect vulnerable Californians from illness or financial distress at a dizzying pace.
But months in, the pandemic safety net strains and sometimes snaps under the weight of Californians’ needs. People spend hours calling agency after agency seeking help to buy groceries or pay rent. Many fall through the cracks.
Approximately 16 million Californians, or 53% of all adults, have lost income since March 13, according to estimates from a Census Bureau survey conducted in mid-June. An estimated 3.5 million residents report their family lacked enough food to eat, up from 2.7 million before the pandemic. And 3.3 million have slight or no confidence that they’ll be able to pay July’s rent.
Whether California’s safety net response represents the best the state could do to keep its residents afloat or a one-two punch of overpromising and underdelivering may lie in the eyes of the beholder.
For some of California’s biggest pandemic safety net programs, here’s how the state’s promises square with reality:
Since Newsom’s shelter-in-place order in mid-March, the state’s unemployment rate has soared from 2.0% to 17.3%. Over 6.7 million people have sought unemployment benefits — more than the first two years of the Great Recession.
To keep up with an avalanche of jobless claims, Newsom on April 15 announced the Employment Development Department would open its phone lines from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, up from just weekday mornings. Independent contractors and the self-employed, newly eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance through the federal CARES act, would get their benefits in 24 to 48 hours, Newsom promised.
How has California delivered?
While the agency has successfully distributed more than $33.5 billion in unemployment benefits, some Californians still face months without any jobless benefits, confusing guidelines, impenetrable phone lines, and frequent disconnections when they do get through to a live person. California’s problems aren’t unique: across the country, antiquated, underfunded unemployment systems have left applicants hanging.
Many are the gig workers who Newsom promised would get expedited benefits, from a Santa Clara woman who received one letter awarding her unemployment and another denial letter on the same day to a Los Angeles interior designer who called the state as many as 62 times a day.
Department spokeswoman Loree Levy clarified that Newsom’s promise that pandemic-related benefits would arrive within two days “forgot some very important caveats.”
An increasingly loud chorus of California legislators have condemned the department. David Chiu, a Democrat assemblyman from San Francisco, branded the hashtag #EDDFailoftheDay with the story of a constituent who has waited for three months for their claim to be resolved. Other lawmakers piled on. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican, has requested an audit of the department.
Apply with the California Employment Development Department here.
Before the pandemic shuttered schools, 3.8 million K-12 students were eligible for free or reduced school lunches across the state.
In March, the U.S. Congress authorized Pandemic-EBT, a program to replace school meals with grocery money. A month later, Newsom announced eligible children would get a one-time payment of up to $365 each. Those who already receive assistance from the state would receive the money automatically. The rest needed to apply online.
How has California delivered?
California partnered with Code for America, a non-profit that works to modernize government services, to create a remarkably user-friendly application, receiving 1.3 million student applications to date.
While California has already issued P-EBT cards to 3.1 million children, getting to the last 20% of eligible children has been a challenge.
It’s essentially a data management problem, said Tracey Patterson, a senior project manager at Code for America. Parents continue to apply for free and reduced lunch at their school. School districts continually send new lists of eligible children to the state’s education agency. P-EBT applications only get approved if the child’s name shows up on that list.
“There is this giant circle of comparing lists that are constantly being updated on a daily and weekly basis,” Patterson said. In contrast, other states like Michigan and Rhode Island already had “very strong data management and infrastructure pre-crisis” that made distributing the money easy.
The state’s webpage for the program says there is a “delay in processing applications for P-EBT due to the high volume of people who need help during the pandemic” and asks parents to stop calling for answers. “You will hear back from us with your final eligibility status by July 30th,” it states.
Apply with California’s Department of Social Services here. The deadline has been extended from June 30 to July 15.
On April 24, Newsom announced Great Plates Delivered, a first-in-the-nation program to send three nutritious restaurant meals per day to isolated seniors sheltering in place from the coronavirus. It was a win-win, Newsom said, that would help keep seniors “in the millions” healthy and restore restaurants jobs.
“Even if it’s hundreds of thousands that take advantage of this, just in weeks you’ll see millions and millions of meals part of this program,” Newsom said.
How has California delivered?
The program got off to a rocky start. Though Newsom said the program went into effect immediately, local officials were caught unawares, even as tens of thousands of seniors called 211 to sign up. Eyeing the program’s looming May 10 expiration date, many municipalities opted out.
Since then, the federal government has extended funding for the program through July 10 and 37 cities and counties have rolled out the program, delivering over 2 million meals to approximately 32,000 seniors.
While the program has been lauded for stimulating much-needed food industry jobs — for example, in Sacramento more than half of the initial 30 restaurants were minority-owned — others have criticized it for leaving behind seniors most in need. Seniors with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level are excluded, as are those who receive other federal nutrition programs like food stamps or Meals on Wheels, which provide far less assistance.
Check whether meals are offered in your area, and how to apply, at California’s COVID response website.
Despite facing staggering job losses, California’s two million undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most federal and state relief. On April 15, Newsom announced a $75 million disaster relief fund to provide a one-time payment of $500 to 150,000 immigrants ineligible for other pandemic relief on a first-come, first-serve basis. Philanthropists had also committed to raising another $50 million, Newsom said.
Has California delivered?
On May 18, the nonprofits selected by the state to distribute the aid began taking applications by phone. Immediately, they were swamped with millions of calls — a signal of the depth of need.
To date, 82,000 recipients have received over $32.2 million in pre-paid cards. But there’s a bottleneck at the nonprofits which are “working around the clock literally” to interview and verify the eligibility of each applicant, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition of Human Rights in Los Angeles, which fields applications there. Each day her organization can only interview about 1,200 and 1,500 of the 600,000 to 800,000 people who try to get through the phone line, she said.
Meanwhile, philanthropists have raised $39.7 million towards the $50 million goal, which is distributed by a network of local community organizations on a rolling basis.
To apply for the state relief, California’s Department of Social Services directs people to contact the nonprofit serving your area before June 30. Find an organization distributing philanthropic relief here or make a donation here.
On April 3, Newsom announced Project Roomkey, a program funded largely by the federal government to lease 15,000 hotel rooms in which unhoused people could shelter-in-place from the virus.
That would cover about a tenth of California’s homeless population, which numbers over 150,000, with about 108,000 living on streets or in cars.
“This is the crisis that predated the most current crisis in the state of California,” Newsom said. “We’re doing everything in our power to meet it head on.”
How has California delivered?
As of June 22, the state had secured 15,781 rooms and placed 10,050 people with underlying conditions in hotel rooms where they can stay until the threat of the virus subsides. Another 595 were temporarily quarantined because they tested positive or have been exposed. The rest of the rooms stand vacant, ready for a surge.
However, Los Angeles County, the epicenter of both California’s homeless crisis and COVID-19 spread has fallen short of its own goal to place 15,000 unhoused, vulnerable Angelenos in rooms, having only leased close to 4,000 rooms thus far. Instead, officials now propose to place the 15,000 in permanent housing in three years.
While 10,000 is a lot of people to place in rooms, it’s half the number of healthcare workers who have stayed in hotels on California’s tab during the pandemic — a reflection of how challenging, and contentious, it is to chip away at California’s homelessness crisis.
Newsom has shifted his aim from short-term public health intervention to a long-term homelessness solution. The new budget deal sets aside $550 million in federal emergency aid to buy hotels to be turned into permanent supportive housing. The catch: the aid expires on December 31, but acquiring hotels can be consuming and pricey.
To be screened for a hotel room, call the homelessness agency for your area.
Asked to grade the success of the COVID-19 safety net he has cobbled together, Newsom said he’s “very proud of starting things from scratch.”
“We could have just walked away and never even endeavored to do something audacious, do something that no one else had ever done, do something that no else is doing,” Newsom said.
But for some, Newsom’s grandiose promises have caused disappointment. Sheila Kern, 66, of Monterey County waited for six weeks to receive restaurant meals that Newsom pledged to send to isolated seniors, only to cancel after receiving burnt pancakes from a poorly reviewed catering company. Meanwhile, she knew of seniors in Laguna Beach who received meals that “exceeded their expectations.”
For Kern, “it failed 100%” due to a lack of oversight.
Part of the problem: with the economy bustling at record-low unemployment in February, the state wasn’t ready for a disaster of this magnitude or speed.
“When the economy is good, it’s rare that states put investments into the resiliency of their social safety nets because it feels like it functions,” said Patterson of Code for America. “But then a crisis hits.”
Some good news: in the current budget deal, Newsom and legislators managed to avoid the kinds of devastating cuts to social services that marked the last recession, possibly hobbling the state’s resilience to this one.
This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.