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If the U.S. economy is strong, why is the Trump Administration proposing to let people go hungry?

By Jessica Bartholow, Western Center Policy Advocate 

In the Trump Administration’s efforts to scale back the federal safety net, it has proposed new work requirement rules for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) in need of SNAP food assistance – an estimated three million Americans.

For low-income individuals, both those who work and those who don’t or can’t, SNAP offers an essential support for preventing hunger. People looking for work need access to food, because unsurprisingly, hunger undermines employment goals.

At Western Center on Law & Poverty, we advocate for the health and dignity of people in poverty, and we see the proposed ABAWD rule as a hardhearted and misguided manipulation of welfare reform. In an economy as strong as the President claims, allowing people to go hungry is immoral and short-sighted.

Congress created a time limit in the Food Stamp Program, now known as SNAP, in 1996 for unemployed, underemployed, and job-seeking childless adults — deemed ABAWDs. Unless exempt due to disability or pregnancy, ABAWDs are limited to receiving food benefits for three months out of any 36-month period unless they satisfy a 20 hours-per-week work requirement.

In the time since 1996, the USDA approved California’s requests to waive ABAWD time-limits, but that changed last year. The statewide waiver of the ABAWD time limit expired on August 31, 2018, with all counties except San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo receiving area waivers until August 31, 2019. The intent of the original 1996 regulations, and the reason California received waivers in the two decades since, is to protect people from hunger.

Many Californians struggle with unemployment, underemployment, and low-wages, and as a result, are forced to rely on public safety net programs. ABAWDs may be able to find low-paying service jobs, but those jobs are increasingly part-time and lack fair scheduling, making it difficult to guarantee 20 hours a week on a regular basis. That kind of involuntary part-time work has doubled between 2007 and 2012 — 43 percent of part-time workers say they wish they were given more hours.

The proposed ABAWD rule also ignores the fact that numerous ABAWDS are classified as such by a slim margin. Many struggle to hold work because of circumstances beyond their control – undiagnosed mental and physical health barriers, inaccessible job markets, and unstable living conditions.

While the time limit includes protections for people with disabilities, proving that one is unfit for work is difficult. States are not obligated to help individuals find providers to diagnose or treat impairments, which means those with significant illnesses risk being unable to comply with verification rules.

Western Center joined the California Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in calling for the complete repeal of the ABAWD rule. If the rule isn’t repealed, lawmakers should, at minimum, protect long-established waivers that prevent hunger for people in communities impacted by high unemployment and underemployment.

California’s temporary ability to exempt individuals from the ABAWD rule is important, but it’s insufficient. We cannot afford to weaken protections from the ABAWD time limit, especially since there is no evidence that it will result in people working more. Additionally, the proposed rule directly undermines legislative intent; negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill included a consideration for work requirements, but those requirements were left out.

The comment period for the proposed rule came to a close this week — it was extended after Western Center brought attention to errors in the submission system. We submitted comments encouraging the USDA to abandon the proposed rule change for the ABAWD time limit, but ultimately, we are working for the elimination of the time limit altogether to ensure that every American who wants to work can, and that no one goes hungry due to lack of a job.


Could California End Childhood Poverty?

If there’s one state we can call the progressive homeland, it’s most likely California. The state is overwhelmingly Democratic and disproportionately liberal. Democrats hold more than three-quarters of the seats in the legislature, while Governor Gavin Newsom has already demonstrated he’s clearly to the left of his predecessor, Jerry Brown.

Sacramento is abuzz with progressive proposals from both Newsom and the legislators. The governor wants to have Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program, which serves 14 million Californians) bargain directly with drug companies over prices. He also wants the state to fund universal pre-K for four-year-olds. Legislators are mulling over proposals to invest major sums in affordable housing.

Perhaps the most far-reaching set of proposals to come before legislators is that developed by a task force the legislature established two years ago. If enacted in their entirety, the proposals could do something that’s never before happened in the United States: eliminate childhood deep poverty. Many of those proposals have been included in the budget that Newsom has presented to the legislature.

…Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty and a key member of the state’s task force, has long argued that ending poverty is a political decision. But, she says, “I feel like any time I said that before [we created this plan] it was just political rhetoric. Because someone could have said to me, ‘OK, what’s the plan?’ and I wouldn’t have been prepared to answer that question.

“But now we have a plan.”

Read more

Western Center opposes proposed SNAP requirements for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (ABAWDs)

Western Center has submitted comments to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) opposing a proposed rule to change work requirements for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (ABAWDs) in need of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. SNAP offers an essential support for preventing hunger among low-income individuals. Denying food assistance to people who are without work will not incentivize more work, as the Administration claims, but rather, will likely plunge a significant number of people further into hunger. No one is at their best when they are hungry.

Western Center advocates for the health and dignity of people in poverty, so we view the proposed ABAWD rule as a hardhearted and misguided manipulation of welfare reform. Allowing people to go hungry in one of the wealthiest countries in the world is both immoral and short-sighted.

Our full comments can be read here, and an excerpt is available below:

“The Western Center on Law and Poverty is deeply concerned by attempts to restrict food assistance to the individuals whom we serve in California. We strongly support the goal of helping SNAP participants obtain and keep quality jobs that enable them to achieve economic security. However, we believe the restrictions suggested in the proposed rule would not achieve that. Instead, they will result in large numbers of out-of-work Californians and workers struggling to work full time or to prove that they work full time losing access to SNAP nutrition assistance, becoming increasingly food insecure, and losing the vitality necessary to seek work or advance their careers.”

Is fixing up this Westlake building a lifesaver or a ‘waste of taxpayer money’?

In a bid to get homeless veterans off the streets, Los Angeles awarded more than $10 millionto help transform an unfussy building in Westlake into supportive housing.

Now critics are arguing that the money should be pulled. The reason?

“One set of extremely poor residents were displaced to make way for another set of extremely poor residents,” attorneys from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the Western Center on Law and Poverty wrote to the city on behalf of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “This is, at best, a waste of taxpayer money.”

The Royal Park Motel — now known as West Third Apartments — had recentlybeen home to some residents who accused their landlord of illegally booting them out of their units. Just before the building was sold for the new project, those tenants had reached a settlement with their landlord that included payouts and a chance for other former residents to return.

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GUEST BLOG: How working with Western Center helped me find my gift for advocacy

Many years ago, around the time Jerry Brown was elected governor the second time, I was introduced to the world of advocacy. Due to my own circumstances, disability rights were very important to me, so I began working with Disability Organizing Group for Initiating Total Equality (DOGFITE), where I was introduced to many great disability advocates.

One of the first issues I worked on after joining the group was SSI (Supplemental Security Income). At that time, I was employed by the State of California’s Employment Development Department. I was earning a decent pay, but I also received SSI payments for months when my health barred me from working enough to earn a living wage. I was 30 years old, and had been on SSI for most of my life.

Regular W-2 employment was something I considered myself unable to do. I was worried that if I was unable to permanently hold a W-2 job, SSI benefits would no longer be available to me if I needed it.  Schwarzenegger’s recession-era cuts to SSI, and my own experiences and anxieties, prompted me to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, especially in relation to SSI.

Shortly after joining DOGFITE, I was introduced to Mike Herald and other advocates working with the Western Center on Law and Poverty on SSI issues. From the beginning, Western Center aimed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program, which barred SSI recipients from receiving food stamps. Western Center was also working to restore funding for SSI benefits from cuts that were made during the recession. The restoration of funding was the main reason I became involved in advocacy, and I was glad to help the Western Center in any way that I could.

Initially, times were exciting. We seemed to have a lot of support in the Capitol for restoring SSI funds and ending cash-out. However, after a year or two of initial failure, I noticed a couple of recurring narratives that had become deeply entrenched. First, people said they didn’t understand enough about cash-out or how it operated, and that more time was needed to know if ending the program was actually a good thing for SSI recipients. The second narrative was that restoring funding for the state portion of SSI benefits was far too expensive for the state to do.

After seven years of being unable to get the California Legislature to budge on either issue, many advocates became disheartened.  There was even a year when a bill to restore SSI grants passed both houses, only to be vetoed by then Governor Jerry Brown.  Many advocates felt that no change would occur until after Brown’s tenure was over. Fortunately, change finally came last year during his final year in office.

In last year’s budget negotiation process, Governor Brown agreed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program. That change will allow over one million Californians who receive SSI to become eligible for food stamps, helping ease some of the food insecurity they experience living in extreme poverty.

However, the permanent ending of cash-out is a battle that continues in this legislative session. In our fight to end the cash-out program, we also advocated for a “hold harmless” clause, because now that SSI benefits can be counted as income, without the clause, some households could lose some or all of their CalFresh benefits.

The hold harmless clause we advocated for provides a supplemental nutrition benefit so those households don’t lose benefits when SSI recipients gain access to food stamps. Governor Brown included enough funding in his last budget to cover the hold harmless legislation for two years, which was a relief, but our fight this year is to make sure the clause is made permanent.

The end of cash-out in California was the first big win around SSI that I was a part of, and it renewed my personal resolve to see the grant restoration become reality. We are doubling down on our efforts to convince the new administration to fully restore the recession-era cuts to the state’s portion of the SSI grant amounts. This fight is of the utmost importance when it comes to California’s goal to address extreme poverty and to improve the safety net for California’s most vulnerable populations.

This battle is extremely important to me as a lifelong recipient of SSI. Many of my family members and peers use SSI income for necessities like food, warmth, and shelter. I know that SSI grants can mean the difference between life and death for people who are permanently unable to work or sustain gainful employment.

I am proud to say that I have aligned my personal advocacy efforts and this portion of my life’s work for the service of people with disabilities, and I am proud to continue my work with Western Center.


Chiu bill would prevent cities from towing vehicles for nonpayment of parking tickets, registration

Cities would no longer be allowed to tow vehicles with multiple unpaid parking tickets or overdue vehicle registration fees or that haven’t moved in more than three days under legislation introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu Monday.

Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 516 with the intention of preventing cars from being towed in cases where it does not serve any public safety purpose and disproportionately impacts low-income people.

The bill would prohibit poverty-related tows wherein the owner has received five or more outstanding parking tickets, were unregistered for more than six months or if the vehicle had violated the 72-hour parking restriction.

…“Towing is an unnecessarily harmful way for local governments to enforce non-safety related laws,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy of Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg.”

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PRESS RELEASE: New Report Shows How Towing Practices in California Punish People in Poverty


AB 516, authored by Assembly Member David Chiu, seeks to end harmful towing practices

San Francisco, Calif., (March 18, 2019) – A new report released today reveals how local governments in California use car towing and the associated fees in ways that disproportionately harm Californians living in poverty. The report, Towed into Debt, is authored by Western Center on Law & Poverty, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Legal Services of Northern California, ACLU of California, Bay Area Legal Aid, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Public Law Center, Public Counsel, and the East Bay Community Law Clinic.

The report states that hundreds of thousands of California drivers have their cars towed every year for non-emergency, non-safety related reasons. Unpaid tickets, expired registration, and parking for more than 72 hours make up the majority of tows in California. People who can’t afford to pay parking tickets and registration fees often can’t afford to retrieve their vehicles once administrative fees, storage fees, and unpaid tickets are added together — fee totals often reach $1500 or more.

If a person is unable to pay all fees within 30 days of a tow, their car is sold for a fraction of its value. In San Francisco, half of all vehicles towed for debt collection are sold at lien sale. In 2017, Los Angeles tow yards sold over 26,000 vehicles that were towed by local agencies. It’s estimated that California sells at least 200,000 government-towed vehicles every year.

“Half of Americans can’t afford an emergency $500 expense, but cities across California regularly saddle low-income people with thousands of dollars in unconstitutional towing fees,” says Elisa Della-Piana, LCCR legal director. “These tows violate the Fourth Amendment by robbing people of their ability to get to work – and often their only financial asset – solely on the basis of economic status.”

California’s towing laws are a lose-lose-lose. People lose their cars, tow yards lose the opportunity to have paying customers on their lot, and local governments lose the opportunity to collect unpaid revenue. “California’s existing towing practices push people deeper into poverty, while doing nothing to benefit local governments. It’s time California put an end to this cruel and devastating practice,” says Maya Ingram, Legislative Attorney with the ACLU of California.

Losing a vehicle can have devastating effects on a person’s ability to get to work, get children to school, and execute essential tasks like getting to medical appointments. “We often hear from community members who are homeless that they wound up in a tent on the sidewalk because of the ripple effects of a single unexpected financial catastrophe. For many, it was getting their vehicle towed and not being able to afford to get it back,” says Shayla Myers, Attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Towing is an unnecessarily harmful way for local governments to enforce non-safety related laws. Western Center’s Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike Herald, describes the practice as “the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg.”

Assembly Member David Chiu has introduced AB 516 to curb the practice of harmful and unnecessary towing. The bill seeks to eliminate three types of poverty related tows:

  • Tows where a person has five or more unpaid parking tickets
  • Tows where the car registration is more than six months out of date
  • Tows where a car has been parked for 72 hours on a public street without being moved

By alleviating non-safety related towing practices, local governments in California will no longer be able to punish people living in poverty by taking away one of their most valuable assets.

To read the full report, click here.

For more information, contact:

Michael Herald, Western Center on Law and Poverty [email protected]

Maya Ingram, ACLU California [email protected]

Elisa Della Piana, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights [email protected]

Western Center intervention helps Oakland tenants avoid eviction after U.S. Marshals seize property

Western Center attorney Madeline Howard got the call from an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza on a Friday. The attorney’s clients had eviction notices from U.S. Marshals informing them that they were to vacate their homes the following week.


The tenants had done nothing wrong, but their landlord faces federal charges, so the government seized his assets — including rental properties. Initially, the Marshals had the tenants sign a lease that listed the Marshals as landlord. That lasted for almost a year, until a buyer came along who wanted the property vacated. 


After receiving the request for assistance, attorneys at Western Center worked with Centro Legal over the following two weeks to stop eviction proceedings, which ultimately allowed the clients to remain in their homes. It was a whirlwind two weeks that illustrates Western Center’s skill in providing support to community clinics so people receive the protection they need.


-U.S. Marshals turned landlords-


The situation started back in February 2018, when U.S. Marshals seized landlord Yaniv Gonar’s properties in response to federal charges for running an illegal slot machine ring. For almost a year, the tenants paid rent to the Marshals, and everything continued on as usual until January 2019, when the tenants noticed a piece of paper on their door – it was a forfeiture complaint.


It’s clear that the federal government knew there were tenants in Gonar’s properties, because a FBI interview in the criminal complaint determined that the tenants were innocent and knew nothing of Gonar’s business. Nevertheless, the only action the government took to warn the tenants of their impending eviction was to stick an English-only copy of the complaint to the front door of the multi-family homes —  Spanish is the tenants’ primary language. The notices didn’t have the tenants’ names on them, and had very small font — nothing to indicate to the tenants that they needed to do something, or that the notice was for them.


Western Center attorney Madeline Howard says the situation was particularly disturbing, because the federal government was treating the tenants the same way other abusive landlords treat people. “One of the big trends we see is new owners emptying out rent-controlled buildings occupied by long term tenants who are often people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes, in order to market to young, wealthy, white people. In this case, it was the federal government doing the displacing.”


-Western Center steps in-


Howard and her colleagues at Western Center dove into mounds of legal research to find out if there was precedent for U.S. Marshals kicking out tenants in this way — especially in a municipality like Oakland with strong tenant protections. “We advised Centro Legal that we should be proactive in signaling our willingness to intervene in the federal forfeiture action, rather than waiting to do something after the tenants were evicted.”


Howard and the attorney from Centro Legal called the U.S. Attorney to tell them that they viewed the actions by the U.S. Marshals to be illegal under California law. “It wasn’t clear whether the Marshals were purposefully not following the law, or if they were just not paying attention to the law,” Howard explained.


At first, the U.S. Attorney said he was unfamiliar with the situation, but in the days following that phone call, and an hour before Centro Legal was to meet with the tenants, the U.S. Attorney emailed to say the eviction notices would be rescinded. Instead of preparing documents for court, the tenants got the news that they would not be evicted.


Western Center’s intervention changed the course of events in this case. The lawyer at Centro Legal was not federally registered, so having attorneys at Western Center as partners who were knowledgeable and prepared to take on federal proceedings made a world of difference in the subsequent interactions with the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshals.


Now there is a new owner of the building, and according to Howard, “The tenants are as secure as tenants can be in the current climate.” If there is a problem with the new landlord in the future, the tenants have attorneys, and their new landlords know that.


Bill that would block debt collectors from levying last dollars from California’s poor introduced

Low-income Californians would finally get the protection they need from debt collectors who are attempting to zero-out their checking accounts with a bill introduced Friday, February 22, by Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont).  SB 616 prevents collectors from taking the last $2,000 from an individual’s account, ensuring that people have some minimal money to pay for daily living expenses.

…“In over 10 years as a legal aid attorney, I saw how many families are one financial set back away from crisis.  California’s bank levy laws allow creditors to empty people’s bank accounts down to the last penny, meaning no money for rent, transportation to work, or child care,” said Rebecca Miller, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.  “California should join other states that protect a minimal amount in a person’s bank accounts so they can afford their basic needs.”

Read more here

Medical credit cards purport to ease medical cost burdens, but end up creating stress. A new Western Center-sponsored bill could change that

By Jen Flory, Western Center Health Policy Advocate

For many medical consumers, medical credit cards are offered as a way to pay for unexpected medical costs not covered by insurance. Those costs can include trips to the dentist, chiropractors, and veterinarians. Most people know how quickly medical bills can upend a person’s finances, so medical credit cards can seem like a good deal – especially when they are presented with a zero percent introductory rate.

The tricky part about medical credit cards, and what many consumers of the cards misunderstand, is that while they enjoy that zero percent rate for a period of time, when the introductory period is up, they will not only pay a higher rate (which is to be expected), but they will also face deferred interest. Deferred interest provisions allow card issuers to charge interest on the entire original balance, regardless of how much is paid off during the introductory period. That extra interest adds an unexpected burden for the medical consumer who thought they were doing something to help with their medical bills.

For example, if a consumer puts $1,000 on their card and pays off $900 by the end of the introductory period, the new 26.99% interest rate will be charged not on the remaining $100 balance, but on the original $1,000. The consumer will end up paying $269.90 in interest on a $100 balance.

To add insult to injury, many people are encouraged to sign up for medical credit cards while they are awaiting services in treatment rooms. Without the time and means to research alternatives, and in such stressful circumstances, consumers don’t have the opportunity to fully understand what they are signing up for.

Consumers have also reported being signed up for credit cards while sitting in a dental chair about to get treatment, or for dental services that could have been covered by Medi-Cal. Many Medi-Cal recipients are still being charged for dental services in spite of the restoration of dental services for adults with Medi-Cal. In some cases, the needed services are not covered by Medi-Cal; in other cases, Medi-Cal services are available to treat the condition, but patients are upsold more expensive services, which often end up on medical credit cards.

In 2009, AB 171 (Jones) was passed to require dentists to give notices prior to signing a patient up for a credit card to pay for services. In 2014, SB 1256 (Mitchell) expanded those rules to any licensed health care provider. While the law does provide for basic patient notification, few consumers understand how deferred interest provisions work, so they are shocked by high interest charges later added to their account.

To protect medical consumers, Senator Holly Mitchell has introduced SB 639, which would prohibit medical providers from offering products with deferred interest provisions, and would prohibit them from signing patients up for medical credit cards in treatment areas. The bill would also require providers that accept Medi-Cal to explain to patients what Medi-Cal does and does not cover, and it would require language in the notices about medical credit cards to be written at a 6th grade reading level.

Third-party financing may have a place when patients need services they cannot immediately pay for, but more must be done to protect consumers. Products with ‘gotcha’ clauses like deferred interest have no place in a medical practice. Consumers should never feel pressured into applying for medical credit cards, and they should always understand what they are signing up for — especially since their health and wellbeing is on the line.