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Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

Time for Change: Rethinking SSI’s Asset Limits

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was created to provide financial support to low-income individuals with disabilities. While the program aims to offer a safety net for disabled folks with low income, one often-overlooked aspect is the impact of asset limits on SSI recipients. These limits force recipients to live on the edge of economic insecurity, preventing them from saving and achieving financial independence. It is time to significantly raise or eliminate the asset limit, like we have for programs like SNAP and Medi-Cal.

Today, the federal monthly SSI benefit is $914 for individuals and $1,371 for couples. As a means tested program, SSI considers all income and resources an individual has or has access to. Several factors can reduce the already modest benefit amount including other sources of income like Social Security, pensions, child support, or living with someone who provides support. 

Current asset limits require individual recipients to have less than $2,000 in assets and couples have less than $3,000. Some assets include cash, bank accounts, stocks, land, life insurance, vehicles, and anything that can be liquidated in a short amount of time. Even retirement accounts that have penalties for withdrawing funds are included. Unfortunately, these asset limits vary for individuals and couples, putting couples with disabilities at a disadvantage. To be equitable, couples should have a $4,000 resource limit. Instead, the limit is capped at $3,000 –a $1,000 penalty. This discourages couples from marrying and economically penalizes them for doing so. Certainly, the Social Security Administration (SSA) should follow a consistent resource limit so individuals and couples can be on the same level.

The asset limit issue stems from values set in an economy from five decades ago in1974. If these limits were to be adjusted for inflation, they would be around $12,378 for individuals and $18,507 for couples. Crunching the numbers, this shows a significant difference of $10,000 to $15,000 in assets, that present price levels are six times higher than in 1974, and that the 1974 dollar has lost significant purchasing power over the years, making these limits increasingly inadequate. 

Restricting savings to $2,000 and $3,000 hinders a recipient’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency and leaves them vulnerable to unexpected expenses from health crises, appliance breakdowns, or economic recession, which disproportionately affect recipients, making it that much harder to recover. As exemplified with Nicholas Hemachandra, an SSI recipient with autism, he has to cut back on hours and spend most of his earnings to avoid losing his benefits. Ray, Nicholas’ dad, hopes for a day when his son can have his own apartment when he is no longer around. However, with the $2,000 limit, it “stops him from (buying) pretty much anything (Hyatt)”. These limits create unnecessary uncertainty for parents like Ray and many others. Coupled with inflation, they further strain recipients that are struggling to keep up with rising grocery prices and housing costs. Raising these limits would encourage saving, reduce the need to exhaust savings before meeting basic needs, and encourage recipients who can, to work. 

Another issue with the outdated limit is its tendency to disrupt benefits and services, causing “churn.” On average, “70,000 beneficiaries have their benefits suspended annually”(CBPP) due to excess resources. Beneficiaries who exceed the limit not only lose benefits, but for many, more importantly, access to Medicaid. SSI eligibility automatically qualifies them for Medicaid. No senior or person with disabilities should ever have to miss essential medications or lose access to lifesaving services because of savings.

Furthermore, raising the limit would simplify the system and reduce administrative costs. Every year 40,000 beneficiaries have their coverage terminated forcing them to go through the hassle of reapplying. The Center on Budget Priorities and Policies states that SSI administration consumes 35% of SSA’s costs, even though it serves fewer recipients than SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), which costs 19%. 

Another finding to highlight from CBPP’s article is increasing limits has limited fiscal impact. Raising them to $10,000 and $20,000 for couples only boosts participation to 3%, while $100,000 results in a 5% increase. Surprisingly, removing the resource limit entirely results in a 6% expansion, just 1% more than the $100k threshold. This is because individuals applying for SSI typically have minimal savings, especially recipients with disabilities who have limited earnings.

Scaling resource limits to $10,000 and $20,000 wouldn’t significantly increase costs. In fact, the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy has projected an $8 billion increase over ten years, representing about 1% of program costs over that period. 

These proposed policy changes have the potential to alleviate SSA financial strain and, more importantly, empower this vulnerable population towards economic independence. While they may not drastically increase in program participation, they can help uplift recipients to a better state of economic well being and independence. Additionally, it’s important that we push for more dialogue in the policy space and look into other programs such as SNAP and TANF with more flexible asset limits.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting this September, the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act was introduced in Congress which aims to update SSI’s asset limits. Western Center supports this bill and will be advocating for its passage.

In conclusion, SSI’s resource limits have far-reaching consequences, forcing recipients on the edge of poverty, hindering financial security, and causing benefit interruptions. Updating these limits is vital for promoting self-sufficiency and ensuring a more effective, equitable system.

Splashy proposals cannot replace what’s needed to address homelessness in California

California has had it with homelessness. Whether you believe it is far past time to address the housing shortage or just want to see people off the streets, there is a growing consensus that something must change. Governor Newsom and several members of the California Legislature want to address the crisis partially by way of a proposal called CARE Court. But is it the right approach?

The appalling growth of people experiencing homelessness is matched only by the complete inability of government, policymakers, or industry to fix it. As Winston Churchill once observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” When it comes to solutions to the homelessness crisis, California has deployed many failed techniques, including poorly planned shelters and police harassment toward people on the street. One thing we know works — giving people enough money to afford rent, is repeatedly derided as “too expensive” (keep in mind, California is in its second year of much higher than anticipated budget surplus).

Solutions to homelessness are not as complex as we are often led to believe. We need to increase grants to adults who are disabled so they can afford rent, like what’s proposed in AB 1941 (Salas). We need to provide increased tax credits to families experiencing poverty, as proposed by AB 2589 (Santiago). We need to provide housing and support services to people coming out of incarceration, as proposed in AB 1816 (Bryan). And importantly, we need to provide permanent and ongoing rental assistance to low-income families and individuals so they can stay housed, as proposed by AB 2817 (Reyes). Those are the kind of policies that will make a visible difference on our streets and in people’s lives.

Governor Newsom’s new proposal is called “Care Court,” but it’s not about care, it’s about control – or at least the illusion of it. The proposal will make it easier for the state, cities, and counties to force people into treatment, and if they don’t go willingly, subject them to involuntary confinement. Here’s another way to think about it: the proposal presents a shiny new political solution that in practice blames and targets the victims of California’s economic, policy, and social failures without implementing proven solutions state resources should flow to – like permanent housing, support services, and more money for rent via programs like SSI, Guaranteed Income, and General Relief. Sure, those are expensive investments, but nowhere near the cost of the crisis playing out on California streets.

The legislative journey for the CARE Court proposal is about to start and it may very well pass through both houses, but in practice, it is likely to fail. Involuntary treatment does not work, especially without housing and services to follow it up. Western Center, ACLU California Action, Disability Rights California, and over 40 more organizations across California submitted an opposition letter to the legislative CARE Court proposal to highlight its fundamental flaws and to provide proven alternatives.

It’s not too late to do the right thing. California can provide large scale and ongoing rental assistance. Government can build thousands of units of affordable housing where the private market has failed. We can allow real rent control rather than the nod, nod, wink, wink version we have now. The one thing we can’t have is a system where the victims of policy incompetence are punished in such a potentially destructive way.

Analysis of Governor Newsom’s 2022-2023 California Budget Proposal

Governor Newsom released his January proposal for the 2022-23 California state budget. In total, the administration projects a $45 billion surplus — a combination of higher revenue collections for the past two budgets and higher than anticipated revenue for the 2022-23 budget. As the governor noted in his press conference, if current economic trends continue, the surplus could grow even more by the time the proposed budget is revised in May. The budget includes a record $36 billion reserve.

SUMMARY

The governor’s proposed budget includes a historic investment in health care by expanding Medi-Cal eligibility for those currently excluded from the program due to immigration status, and by eliminating Medi-Cal premiums for children, pregnant people, and people with disabilities. It does not eliminate the burdensome “share of cost” that many people on Medi-Cal still pay as a monthly deductible.

The budget also includes expanded funding to house people experiencing homelessness, a large investment in health care related workforce development, and an expansion of proposals intended to reduce poverty such as increasing CalWORKs grants, passing on all child support to families formerly on public assistance, and expanding the state child tax credit to households with no reported income. The budget also proposes to fund 36,000 new childcare slots for working families, but this means approximately 150,000 families will remain on the waiting list.

Unfortunately, this proposal misses an opportunity to build on significant progress made through existing poverty-reduction initiatives. Despite the expiration of the very effective federal child tax credit increase, the governor’s proposed budget does not backfill that lost income for California families. It also fails to fund more stimulus payments for Californians with low incomes. Additionally, it does not provide a cost-of-living increase for the SSI/SSP grant as required by state law, and it does not accelerate the SSI/SSP grant restoration scheduled for January 2024.

The need for rental and utility assistance in California has greatly outpaced federal funds allocated to the state. While California was recently allocated an additional $62 million in federal funds to address the growing need, the state needs about $2 billion. The governor missed an opportunity to supplement the federal dollars with surplus from the General Fund. However, California will continue to advocate for additional funding from the federal government.

Despite the large surplus and number of proposed initiatives, the governor’s proposal uses just $20 billion for the needs of Californians. More than half of the surplus is being used to fund reserves and to pay off long term debt. Of the $20 billion being spent, the governor proposes to use 86 percent for one-time expenditures. The reluctance to invest in ongoing needs means proposals that could make a major impact, like funding a broadly available rental assistance program, are not part of the discussion. The legislature should review the governor’s budget with an eye toward meeting more of the short- and long-term needs of all Californians.

HEALTH CARE

The governor’s proposal expands Medi-Cal to all adults regardless of immigration status. This would make California the first state in the nation to cover all adults, and together with the recent increase in the income level for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as the scheduled elimination of the Medi-Cal assets test by January 1, 2024, all adults under 138 percent of the poverty level will be eligible for free, full-scope Medi-Cal. The governor’s proposal also eliminates premiums for children, pregnant people, and the Working Disabled Program, and expands Medi-Cal coverage of custom crowns for back teeth. In addition, there are affordability, provider payment, and workforce investments.

Medi-Cal

  • Health4All: The governor’s proposal expands full-scope Medi-Cal coverage to an estimated 700,000+ undocumented adults ages 26 through 49, effective no sooner than January 1, 2024, with estimated costs of $819 million total funds ($614 million General Fund) in FY 2023-24 and $2.3 billion total funds ($1.8 billion General Fund) at full implementation.
  • Zero out premiums: The proposed budget includes $53 million total funds ($19 million General Fund) in FY 2022-23 and $89 million total funds ($31 million General Fund) ongoing and trailer bill language to reduce premiums to zero for Medi-Cal and other Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) programs. This includes Medi-Cal premiums for children above 160 percent of the poverty level, the 250 percent Working Disabled Program premiums, as well as the premiums for pregnant women and infants under the Medi-Cal Access Program (MCAP) and County Children’s Health Insurance Programs (C-CHIP).
  • Justice-related initiatives: The proposal includes $50 million total funds ($16 million General Fund) in FY 2022-23 to implement the CalAIM justice-related initiatives with implementation beginning January 2023. This includes pre-release applications, pre-release “in-reach” services, and coordinated re-entry. There will also be trailer bill language to extend the duration of suspension of Medi-Cal benefits when an individual is incarcerated to increase the likelihood that coverage is maintained.
  • Dental Lab Processed Crown (AKA Custom Crown) Coverage: The budget includes $37 million total funds ($13 million General Fund) in FY 2022-23 and trailer bill language to update adult coverage requirements to include lab processed crowns for posterior teeth, in place of stainless-steel crowns. Also related to dental, the administration proposes to extend dental managed care contracts and procure new contracts no sooner than January 1, 2024.
  • The governor’s proposal includes the following provider payment investments:
    • Proposition 56 Supplemental Provider Payment Backfill: To address declining tobacco revenue, the proposal includes an increase of $29 million from the General Fund to fully fund remaining Proposition 56 payments at their current level in FY 2022-23.
    • Equity and Practice Transformation Payments: To close health equity gaps in preventive, maternity, and behavioral health care measures and address gaps in care arising out of the pandemic, the proposal includes $400 million total funds ($200 million General Fund) in one-time funds, aligning with the goals of the Medi-Cal Comprehensive Quality and Equity Strategy.
    • Elimination of Certain AB 97 Provider Payment Reductions: The budget includes $20 million total funds ($9 million General Fund) in FY 2022-23 and $24 million total funds ($11 million General Fund) ongoing to eliminate AB 97 payment reductions for nurses, alternative birthing centers, audiologists/hearing aid dispensers, respiratory care providers, durable medical equipment, oxygen and respiratory services, chronic dialysis clinics, non-emergency medical transportation, and emergency air medical transportation.
  • Discontinue Child Health and Disability Program (CHDP) and Expand Children’s Presumptive Eligibility (PE): The Department is proposing to sunset CHDP by July 1, 2023 via trailer bill language and replace with the Children’s Presumptive Eligibility Program, which will include all Medi-Cal providers.
  • Mobile Crisis Services: The proposal includes $108 million total funds ($16 million General Fund) and trailer bill language to add qualifying 24/7 community-based mobile crisis intervention services as a Medi-Cal benefit as soon as January 1, 2023. The benefit will be implemented through county behavioral health delivery systems by multidisciplinary mobile crisis teams in the community.

Other Health Proposals 

  • Office of Health Care Affordability: The proposal reappropriates funding for the Office that was originally included in the 2021 Budget Act (originally $11.2 million in 2020-21 and $24.5 million in 2022-23) and proposes statutory changes for its establishment. The Office is charged with increasing cost and quality transparency, developing cost targets for the health care industry, enforcing compliance, and filing gaps in market oversight.
  • Covered California: The proposal continues to deposit into a reserve fund to be used for future Covered California affordability programs the $333.4 million General Fund that would have been used for Covered California state premium subsidies (not currently needed due to American Rescue Plan Funds).  The administration intends to work with the Legislature to determine the best use of these funds based on the recent AB 133 affordability report produced by Covered California, after determining what ongoing federal support will be available. In addition, the proposal continues to include $20 million General Fund in 2022-23 to support the One-Dollar Premium Subsidy program, which zeros the cost of Covered California consumers for health plans due to federal policy concerning abortion coverage.
  • Behavioral Health Bridge Housing: The proposed budget includes $1.5 billion General Fund ($1 billion in FY 2022-23 and $500 million in FY 2023-24) for behavioral health bridge housing to address the immediate housing and treatment needs of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness with serious behavioral health conditions by purchasing and installing tiny homes and providing time-limited operational supports in various bridge housing settings.
  • Workforce Development: The proposal includes $1.7 billion in Care Economy Workforce investments, including $350 million General Fund to recruit and train 25,000 new community health workers as well as additional health care providers.

HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS

In total, the governor’s 2022-2023 budget dedicates $9 billion for housing and $8 billion for homelessness. Largely building on last year’s efforts, this budget proposal attempts to chip away at the housing and homelessness crisis by streamlining production, increasing housing accountability, and funding homelessness solutions through a climate focused lens.

This “Housing as a Climate Strategy’’ focuses on preservation and production of affordable housing near schools, jobs, transit, density, and community hubs to fight climate change. Despite the well-placed investments in climate resilient housing, the budget falls short in supporting struggling Californians from eviction with the notable lack of state funding for eviction protection. The budget also proposes to battle the state homelessness crisis with an eye toward housing and behavioral health. While on the surface this plan addresses the long-standing need for better mental health for the unhoused community, it plays on the trope that all people experiencing homelessness have mental health conditions, rather than recognizing the very tangible fact that most Californians simply cannot afford the high cost of living, which has steepened since the start of the pandemic.

The governor is also increasing funding for “beautification” and “hazardous material removal” in encampments, which translates to increased sweeps, harassment, and further ostracization of people experiencing homelessness. With another budget surplus, we hope the budget’s May revision will use the additional funding to preserve and increase affordable housing, prevent needless evictions with increased funding for California’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and provide tangle solutions to get people off the streets and into safe, stable, affordable, and permanent housing.

Affordable Housing and Climate 

  • $300 million one-time General Fund for the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program to support land-use, housing, transportation, and land preservation projects for infill and compact development that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • $100 million one-time General Fund to expand affordable housing development and adaptive reuse opportunities on state excess land sites.
  • $100 million one-time General Fund for adaptive reuse incentive grants to remove cost impediments to adaptive reuse (e.g., structural improvements, plumbing/electrical design, exiting) and help accelerate residential conversions, with a priority on projects located in downtown-oriented areas.
  • $500 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
    • $4.6 million in farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credits.
  • $200 million one-time General Fund for the California Housing Finance Agency (CalHFA) to provide loans to developers for mixed-income rental housing, specifically for households with incomes between 30 percent and 120 percent of the Area Median Income.
  • $200 million one-time General Fund for the Portfolio Reinvestment Program to further preserve targeted units in downtown-oriented areas and continue increasing the state’s affordable housing stock.

Mobile Home Rehab

  • $100 million one-time General Fund for HCD’s Mobile Home Park Rehabilitation and Resident Ownership Program. These funds will finance the preservation and development of affordable mobile home parks.

Infill Housing

  • Infill Infrastructure Grant Program—$500 million one-time General Fund ($225 million in 2022-23, and $275 million in 2023-24).

Emergency Rental Assistance Program

  • California requested an additional $1.9 billion in federal funding to address the growing need for rental assistance and utility assistance for Californians. California was allocated an additional $62 million from the U.S. Department of Treasury. While grateful that California was allocated 30 percent of the total federal reallocation, this amount is woefully short of the need.  Currently, California needs almost $2 billion more than what we were originally allocated, and the need is growing. California will continue to advocate with the federal government to obtain additional rental and utility assistance.

Formerly Incarcerated Housing

  • $10.6 million one-time General Fund over three years to the Returning Home Well program that will provide transitional housing to parolees at risk of housing insecurity or homelessness.

Legal Services for Renters

  • $40 million investment in legal assistance for renters and homeowners.

Homelessness

  • $2 billion one-time General Fund, multi-year grant to cities, large counties and Continuums of Care working with the California Interagency Council on Homelessness (Cal-ICH). Cal-ICH will work with grantees on their homelessness accountability plans.
  • $500 million one-time general fund dollars in housing encampment resolution efforts that will expand program jurisdictions investment in short- and long-term rehousing strategies for people experiencing homelessness.
  • $25 million in Clean California and $20.6 million for hazardous material removal at encampments.
  • $1 million investment in homeless youth programs.
  • $1.5 billion in General Funds over two years dedicated to resources to address the immediate housing and treatment needs of people experiencing homelessness who have behavioral health conditions. This funding will be administered through DHCS’ Behavioral Health Continuum Infrastructure program to purchase tiny homes and facilitate bridge/transitional housing. Such funding can also be used for bridge housing including an expansion of Project Homekey Acquisition.
  • $5 million for Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA).

PUBLIC BENEFITS & ACCESS TO JUSTICE

CalWORKs Grants

The governor is proposing a 7.1 percent grant increase to CalWORKs grants starting October 1, 2022. The funding for the increase comes from Child Poverty Subaccount, a stream of revenue dedicated to CalWORKs grant increases. As a result of the 7.1 percent increase, maximum CalWORKs grants will equal 54 percent of the federal poverty level. For families not subject to sanctions, timed off aid or with an ineligible adult, the grant levels exceed the deep poverty level, which means a reduction in the well-documented, long-term negative impacts of deep poverty on children. Despite the increase in the grant level, the administration’s budget does not fulfill the commitment to increase CalWORKs grants so that no child is living in deep poverty. The so-called AU+1 approach requires significantly more investment than this budget provides. Below is a chart which shows current grant amounts, grant amounts with the 7.1 percent increase, the percent of the federal poverty level, what the grant would need to be to ensure an end to deep poverty, and lastly, the gap between the current grant and an end to deep poverty.

Workforce Development

The administration is proposing two major investments in workforce development. One is a $1.5 billion Proposition 98 General Fund effort to support the development of college and career pathways focused on education, health care, technology, and climate-related fields. Promoting pathways that allow students to move seamlessly from high school to college and career will improve the number of students who pursue and achieve post-secondary education and training.

The governor is also proposing to invest $1.7 billion over three years in care economy workforce development—across both the Labor Agency and California Health and Human Services Agency—that will create more innovative and accessible opportunities to recruit, train, and hire, and will advance an ethnically and culturally inclusive health and human services workforce, with improved diversity and higher wages. These programs will target students such as those in CalWORKs welfare to work.

Safety Net Reserve

The budget provides no increase in the safety net reserve, maintaining a $900 million level. While this amount represents an important safeguard against Medi-Cal and CalWORKs program reductions in lean budget years, the continuing growth in spending in both programs might require additional funds to preserve the effectiveness of the reserve.

Child Support Pass Through

The governor is proposing a major change to child support rules by allowing all child support paid by non-custodial parents to go to families formerly receiving CalWORKs or Medi-Cal. For decades it has been state policy for the state to retain any child support for the state to pay off the cost of providing welfare and medical benefits. In short, the state has reimbursed itself and made the families live with less income. When fully implemented, these families are estimated to receive an additional $187 million. While the idea of passing through all child support is certainly welcome, it is notable that the administration is proposing to do this only for families no longer receiving government assistance. The governor chose not to allow a 100 percent pass through to families currently on aid. The legislature may wish to consider expanding this proposal to pass through all child support to all families.

SSI/SSP Grants

The administration did not propose an increase in the SSI/SSP grants for 2022-23 budget, citing last year’s agreement to a two-step increase in SSP funding to restore grant cuts made by the state in the 2010 and 2011 budgets. The first of these grant increases went into effect on January 1, 2022, and in conjunction with a federal cost of living increase for the SSI portion of the grant, SSI/SSP grant levels went from $954 a month up to $1,040 a month for a single individual. The second step of grant increases is set to go into effect in January 2024.

In 2018, the legislature and then Governor Brown agreed to provide a state cost of living adjustment on the SSP portion of the grant beginning in January 2023. While that agreement is subject to funding in the budget, the administration chose not to include it in the January budget. As it currently stands, SSI recipients would not see any increased state funding for two years. The legislature may wish to consider whether to accelerate the second SSP increase to 2023 or to provide a cost-of-living adjustment.

Home Visiting

The administration proposes to increase funding for Home Visiting by $50 million ongoing for the Department of Public Health (CDPH) to expand the California Home Visiting Program and the California Black Infant Health Program, serving approximately 6,000 additional families over five years on top of 3,700 currently served by the Home Visiting Program and 1,650 served by the Black Infant Health Program. The administration does not propose increased funding for the CalWORKs Home Visiting program, which was cut in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. The budget proposes greater flexibility for home visiting models offered to meet the diverse needs of families across the state, expands home visiting services to additional counties, and makes them accessible to families with the highest need. Additionally, this proposal will support early literacy by including books and early literacy programming provided by home visitors, and will be further supported by a $350 million General Fund investment to recruit, train, and certify new community health workers.

Earned Income Tax Credit

The administration is proposing to allow families with zero reported income to be eligible for the $1,000 state child tax credit so long as the family would otherwise be eligible. The concept of a zero-earnings tax credit potentially opens the door for allowing people receiving SSI, SSDI, and Social Security to get the same state assistance that families receive from the state EITC and Child Tax Credit.

Civil Assessments

The administration is proposing to reduce the impact of fines and fees on low-income Californians by reducing civil assessments from a maximum of $300 to a cap of $150. Civil assessments are imposed on people in criminal and traffic courts when they fail to appear for a hearing, or they fail to pay a fine in a timely fashion. Legal service advocates tell us that many clients receive multiple civil assessments that increase the amount they owe and make it even harder to pay court ordered fines and fees. While this proposal goes part way in meeting the goals of legislators and advocates, as proposed, civil assessments would still impact Californians with the lowest incomes most, and leaves open the question of whether retroactive civil assessment debts would continue to be subject to collection.

California Food Assistance Program

The administration proposes phasing in the expansion the California Food Assistance Program to all Californians ages 55 and older, regardless of immigration status. This year’s budget proposal includes $35.2 million for initial planning phases of the expansion and allocates $113.4 million annually starting in the 2025-26 budget year for the full expansion.

Golden State Stimulus/Grants

The administration chose not to provide another round of pandemic stimulus payments. These payments, which went out to low- and moderate-income households, were instrumental in allowing families and individuals to absorb some of the costs of the pandemic and to give breathing room in household budgets. The grants were also a method for the state to reduce state expenditures below the Gann Limit, which caps the amount the state budget can increase from year to year. The governor noted in his press conference that the door is not closed on this and it may be under consideration for the May Revise.

For questions, contact:

  • Public Benefits/ Access to Justice: Michael Herald, Director of Policy Advocacy – mherald[at]wclp.org
  • Food Access: Christopher Sanchez, Policy Advocate – csanchez[at]wclp.org
  • Health Care: Jen Flory, Policy Advocate – jflory[at]wclp.org; Linda Nguy, Policy Advocate – lnguy[at]wclp.org
  • Housing: Cynthia Castillo, Policy Advocate – ccastillo[at]wclp.org; Tina Rosales, Policy Advocate – trosales[at]wclp.org

Assisting Vulnerable Populations: How providing medical records and completing medical certification forms can be life changing.

“Helen Tran, Rutzick’s colleague and an attorney at Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles, was part of a team that advocated for Assembly Bill (AB) 2520, effective January 1, 2021, which was the bill that created this requirement for healthcare providers to provide a copy of a patient’s medical records at no charge to an employee of a nonprofit legal services entity that represents a patient, such as Inner City Law Center.”

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Overview of Western Center Priorities in the Final 2021-2022 California Budget

*PDF available here

After almost two months of negotiation, the Governor signed AB 128, the final 2021-22 budget passed by the Legislature. The Governor has not yet signed SB 129, which amends AB 128, and many trailer bills are not yet finalized. We will update this document as developments unfold.

As it stands, the budget marks progress for many Western Center priorities, including the expansion of health programs for new parents and undocumented Californians 50+, increased grants for CalWORKs and SSI/SSP recipients, increased funding for legal aid services, and increased investments in tenant protection.

FINANCIAL SECURITY

The state budget increases CalWORKs grants by 5.3 percent on October 1, 2021. Maximum grants by family size now slightly exceed 50 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). CalWORKs households will also receive a $640 payment in July 2021 from the TANF Pandemic Emergency Fund. This budget increases the eligibility income disregard from $90 to $450 beginning May 2022.

CalWORKs Grants:

ACCESS TO JUSTICE/ FINES & FEES

The budget increases SSP grants by $36 a month beginning January 2022, and commits to making a second $37 payment starting in January 2024. It also eliminates the removal of people receiving the Transitional Nutrition Benefits for failure to fill out recertification paperwork within 30 days of the deadline.

The budget increases funding for the Equal Access Fund (EAF) by $50 million, for a total funding amount of $70 million. It also provides $40 million in funding for eviction prevention with 75% of those funds for organizations that receive EAF.

The budget provisionally repeals civil assessments for those who fail to appear or pay tickets in traffic courts. It also expands the online traffic adjudication pilot program to all counties. Indigent persons using the online tool get a minimum 50% reduction in the total fine amount and cannot pay more than $25 a month towards the remaining fine.

HEALTH CARE

The Medi-Cal budget has significant investments in eligibility, including elimination of the Medi-Cal asset test to ensure elders and people with disabilities are not impoverished by health care, expansion of Medi-Cal to all income-eligible adults age 50 and older regardless of immigration status, and Medi-Cal eligibility extension from 60 days to 12 months for all post-pregnancy individuals. Unfortunately, the budget excludes Medi-Cal coverage for undocumented adults ages 26-49 and continuous Medi-Cal coverage for children up to age 5.

Medi-Cal service expansions include addition of doula services, community health workers as a class of providers, continuous glucose monitoring systems for beneficiaries with diabetes, a permanent end to the suspension of certain benefits, and funding for field testing of translated Medi-Cal materials to ensure that documents are understood by the intended audience.

Even with the progress made in the budget, SB 65 (Skinner), the California Momnibus bill, still contains additional provisions to reduce maternal health disparities. AB 470 (Carrillo) will be amended to include any clean-up language for Medi-Cal asset test elimination.

In addition, there is funding for community-based organizations and local public health entities to address health disparities (delayed to July 2022), funding to zero out $1 Covered California premiums, and funding for the creation of the Health Care Affordability Reserve Fund to allow for future investment in Covered California subsidies.

HOUSING

The biggest success is AB 832, which will provide 100% payments towards arrears for eligible tenants who were unable to pay rent during the pandemic. The U.S Treasury dedicated a total of $5.2 billion in federal rental relief to support tenants for a total of 18 months. There is an additional $300 million in the national mortgage settlement funds for homeowners and $1 billion to the CA Housing Finance Agency for mortgage assistance and principal reductions, as well as an additional $100 million to expand CalHFA First Time Homebuyer Assistance Program.

There aren’t many changes from the May Revise for housing production. This budget includes:

  • $1.75 billion in one-time general funds to support Housing and Community Development affordable housing projects — 6,300 projects are currently shovel ready.
  • $81 million in one-time funds to expand CalHFA’s Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) program.
  • $300 million in one-time funds to sustain Housing and Community Development legacy project affordability requirements.
  • $50 million for the Golden State acquisition fund.
  • $45 million in one-time GF to finance low- and moderate-income units.
  • Up to $500 million for Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
  • $50 million for farmworker housing.
  • $500 million in foreclosure intervention and housing preservation.

The budget also includes significant investments in homelessness funding:

  • $2 billion over two years for local jurisdictions to address homelessness.
  • $150 billion in one-time funds for RoomKey program to acquire and rehabilitate more housing facilities.
  • $2.75 billion for Project Homekey using American Rescue Plan Act and GF.
  • 50 million in one-time general funds for encampment resolutions services
  • $92.5 million in general funds in both 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 to expand program to provide housing support for eligible families experiencing homelessness in the child welfare system.
  • $50 million invested in the Homesafe program to support access to health, safety, and housing support for elderly people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
  • $150 in general funds annually through 2023-2024 for people with disabilities who are experiencing homelessness under the Housing and Disability Advocacy program.
  • $40 million for homeless youth emergency service projects including rapid rehousing, rental assistance, transitional housing up to 36 months, supportive housing, housing navigation, and housing stability.
  • $25 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs that provide supportive services to homeless or at risk of homelessness veterans, for emergency or long-term housing support, among other things.

Finally, the budget includes an investment of $536,000 to the Department of Fair Housing and Employment to investigate and enforcement civil rights violations.

 

 

California leaders have two weeks to get the state budget right by investing in poverty elimination rather than band aids.

Over the next two weeks, the Governor and Legislature will determine how to spend the state’s $38 billion dollar surplus (closer to $76 billion if you include constitutionally mandated spending). The Governor has requested nearly 400 new spending proposals, many of them one-time investments to be spent over several years. There are many worthy proposals in the Governor’s budget — most demonstrably, a $12 billion commitment to reduce homelessness.

California is one of the wealthiest places on earth. We have more billionaires than any other state and our per capita income ranks 6th among states at over $71,000 a year. California residents, by far, pay the most in federal income taxes, exceeding New York by roughly $90 billion annually. We have a highly progressive state tax structure that asks those with the most to pay more. This wealth provides the largest budget of any state in the nation. But for all its wealth, California has a dark side.

More than one in six children lives in poverty in California. 450,000 California children are estimated to live in households that earn less than half of the abysmally low federal poverty level. This is often referred to as deep poverty. Research shows that children who live in deep poverty experience a form of toxic stress that slows normal brain development, results in lower educational achievement, higher risk of chronic health conditions, and lower earnings as adults.

For decades, California has provided sub-meager grant levels to people who are disabled (Supplemental Security Income (SSI), families with kids (CalWORKs), and indigent single adults (General Relief). For years, CalWORKs grants were worth less than 40 percent of the federal poverty level, at around $700 a month. That’s a program for kids and families living deep poverty, where the family income is less than 50 percent of the poverty level. Due to ridiculously low CalWORKs grants, these families are housing unstable, and must occasionally use homeless services.

Former Senator Holly Mitchell led the effort to increase CalWORKs grant and succeeded when Governor Brown committed to a three-step increase to prevent children on CalWORKs from living in deep poverty. Though Governor Newsom did provide the second of the promised increases, his current budget doesn’t finish the job. It provides an increase that falls short of eliminating deep poverty among children.

To his credit, Governor Newsom gets it. In addition to following through on the second of the CalWORKs grant increases in his first budget, one of his first acts as governor was a refundable $1,000 child tax credit for families in poverty, paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes. Legislators and advocates believed that the dream of ending childhood deep poverty in California would finally happen in the 2020-21 budget, but then COVID hit. Millions of people lost jobs and the state’s revenues plummeted. California could no longer afford to end deep childhood poverty, or so we thought.

As it turns out, the state’s revenues quickly rebounded, since billionaires made so much money during the pandemic. California ended up with the largest surplus in its history.

Even so, Governor Newsom did not include funding to end childhood deep poverty in his 2021 May budget announcement, instead offering a modest, insufficient grant increase for CalWORKs. It is simply unacceptable that one of the richest places on earth will continue to allow children to live in abject poverty.

Similarly, the Governor offered a modest $10 a month increase to SSI recipients who are blind, aged and disabled. Over the past decade, the standard of living for SSI recipients has degraded due to the elimination of state cost of living adjustments and the resistance by successive governors to restore cuts made during the Schwarzenegger and early Brown administrations. California saved over $10 billion with those cuts and kept them in effect even when the state was running substantial surpluses with large reserves.

Against this backdrop, Senate Budget sub-committee #3 considered the Governor’s 2021-22 SSI proposal. The empathetic new chair, Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, noted that the proposal leaves SSI recipients below the poverty level, and that she is helping a friend living on SSI just to make it month to month. Single, indigent adults leaving the criminal legal system have it even worse, with paltry assistance upon release and $221 in General Relief they can use for housing. In fact, 70% of Californians experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration. It’s all a recipe for instability.

Governor Newsom really wants to do something about homelessness, which is good, but it doesn’t matter how much we spend on housing and services if we don’t slow the stream of people losing their housing due to poverty.  California is using austerity tactics on people in poverty, getting the same results over and over again. Now we’re funding a $12 billion emergency program to fix the carnage. If we want to end homelessness, we must give people the money they need to stay stably and safely housed.

State governments are afraid to provide benefits it may have to cut down the road and believe that a way to save money is to deny adequate levels of assistance. What legislators fail to see is that the reluctance to spend money upfront causes enormous downstream costs. Homeless services, child welfare, emergency food, and foster care are not free, but require funding at ever increasing amounts. If we simply invested to keep people housed and healthy from the get-go, rather than forcing them to live in a constant state of toxic stress caused by extreme poverty, we might not have that problem.

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the budget deadline, the Legislature has a chance to end this shameful chapter in our history by using this year’s surplus to reverse toxic trends that reinforce poverty. Grants for SSI and CalWORKs should be substantially raised so no one is homeless, and the same level of benefits should be provided to people coming out of the criminal legal system and those on General Relief.

This is California, the 5th largest economy in the world. We can and must do better.

 

Update on the 2020-21 California Budget

On Monday, June 15th, the California Legislature met the state constitutional deadline for passing the 2020-21 budget by approving a new state budget. At this time, it is unclear if the Governor will support the budget, as no deal has been announced.

The Legislature approved this budget to uphold its constitutional duty, but it is not the final version. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented economic and public health uncertainty, and it has highlighted and exacerbated every existing inequity the state has failed to address. On top of the pandemic, social unrest calling for justice and equality for Black people has created a demand for leaders at every level to do things differently to dismantle entrenched white supremacy. If the Governor and Legislature simply ram through a budget deal, it will disproportionately harm Black people and other communities of color – as the economics of this state always do.

Forthcoming actions on this budget by the Legislature and Governor must take into account the needs of ALL Californians. The state’s economics must change — that includes increasing revenue through taxes on extreme wealth, and not making cuts to the programs millions of Californians rely on.

The budget approved by the Legislature rejects the vast majority of cuts proposed in the Governor’s May Revision budget, and includes several program expansions sought by advocates. The Legislature’s budget includes a trigger mechanism that is substantially different than the one proposed by the Governor. The trigger approved by the Legislature would not take effect until October 1, 2020, and will be “triggered” if the U.S. Senate and President fail to approve the $14 billion in assistance to states that the House of Representatives approved last month, on a bi-partisan basis.

To bring the budget into balance if federal leaders fail to deliver additional funding, the Legislature’s trigger would utilize reserve funding, deferrals of school funding, delays in previously approved spending, and state employee compensation reductions. It would not include most cuts to health programs, CalWORKs, SSI, IHSS, or programs for elders, which were proposed by the Governor. More details are available here.

The Legislature’s budget does include some program corrections, restorations, and expansions — notably, it ends the exclusion of immigrant workers with Individual Tax I.D. Numbers (ITINs) for the state Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC), restores the CalWORKs lifetime limit for adults to 60 months, provides another $350 million for homeless programs, and provides COVID-19 inspired CalFresh program simplifications and out-of-office technology advancements. All of these proposed changes are subject to ongoing negotiations, and until a “deal” is announced, we won’t know if they are in the final budget.

For health care, Western Center supports the Legislative budget’s rejection of cuts proposed in the Governor’s May Revision. The Legislature’s budget protects the health of California’s elders and communities of color in several ways. It does not reinstate the senior penalty by raising the Medi-Cal Aged & Disabled income limit, per last year’s budget. It rejects Medi-Cal benefit cuts and limits estate recovery, which disproportionately seizes homes from Black, Latinx, and API families. It also restores funding for the Black Infant Health program and for health navigators, and expands Medi-Cal to elders regardless of immigration status, though, Western Center would like to see that implemented sooner.

The Legislature’s budget recognizes the need to address the state’s homelessness crisis for unhoused community members, while also preventing additional homelessness. The budget allocates resources for traditional interventions, as well as funds to increase permanent housing options through the expansion of the low income housing tax credit, acquisition of hotels and motels which may appropriately serve as longer-term housing resources, and funds for the provision of legal assistance to low-income households that may be threatened with displacement or eviction. Given the magnitude of California’s housing challenges, which are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing responses, we look forward to building on this foundation.

Overlooked SSI recipients facing homelessness & poverty to testify at Capitol to seek relief

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

People with disabilities and older adults in California face poverty due to
recession-era cuts to bolster Rainy Day fund

Sacramento — Today, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients and advocates head to the State Capitol to meet with legislators and share first-hand testimony about living on SSI at the State Assembly Budget Hearing. The coalition — which includes more than 200 organizations — centers individuals living on SSI in accordance with the disability rights motto “nothing about us without us.”

Today’s delegation was significantly reduced in response to COVID-19 and CDPH’s guidance, as SSI recipients are older adults and/or people living with disabilities — those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We know there is no substitute for people sharing their first-hand experience of trying to live a healthy and dignified lifestyle on SSI, but we must protect our vulnerable community members. As SSI champions, we will do our best to echo the voices of those who are able to make the trek to Sacramento,” said Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs for the California Association of Food Banks, a CA4SSI member. “We must restore the recession-era cuts to the state portion of the SSP grant. It is unfair and unjust to balance the budget on the backs of older adults and people with disabilities.”

It is estimated by the Department of Social Services that SSI / SSP grant amounts will be a maximum of $950 beginning January 1, 2020. The 2020 federal poverty level for a single individual is estimated to be $1,056 a month. California has one of the highest rates of senior poverty in the country – almost 50% of people 65 and older have incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty level.

“Since the 2009 recession, California has kept our SSI payments at an amount that is below the federal poverty level. It’s clear that these dangerously low grant payments are effecting our state’s ability to manage homelessness and poverty,” said Senator Melissa Hurtado. “With Homelessness being one of the top issues that our state faces today, the legislature has an opportunity to restore these dangerous cuts by helping to cover the cost of rent to help low‑income individuals achieve and maintain self‑sufficiency.”

The three key asks of the Coalition include:

  • Support an approximately $100 a month budget augmentation to bring SSI grants to 100% of the federal poverty level for a single recipient.
  • Re-establish the statutory cost of living adjustment for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP) portion of the grant on January 1, 2020.
  • Ensure that recipients of the SNB and the TNB programs are provided the same legal protections that SNAP recipients are currently provided, including protections around churn and replacement benefits during disaster.

“In the time since cuts were made in 2009, over $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The state needs to recognize that for people on SSI, rainy days are here now, and with the current housing crisis, restored grant amounts could mean the difference between staying housed and being priced out for recipients across California.”

“It has been a decade since the drastic cuts were made to the SSI/SSP grants. It is time that persons with disabilities and older adults have those cuts restored to narrow this shameful poverty gap left by the cuts. California needs to protect its most financially distressed citizens. We can afford it, and it is the right thing to do,” says Andrew Imperato, executive director at Disability Rights California.

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Californians for SSI (CA4SSI) is a statewide coalition of over 200 organizations across the aging, disability rights, housing and homeless, anti-hunger, and anti-poverty sectors. We see the suffering that our most vulnerable residents are facing every day and we seek to ensure that they receive adequate support to live their lives in dignity. For a full list of coalition members, go to: http://ca4ssi.org.

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, Western Center on Law & Poverty: cmckinney[at]wclp.org

 

 

Western Center Reaction to Governor Newsom’s Proposed 2020-2021 Budget

First and foremost, Western Center is pleased that Governor Newsom’s proposed budget includes significant and innovative proposals to address the homelessness crisis in California, which will not only help the thousands of people currently experiencing homelessness, but will also prevent more people from losing their housing. We are also pleased to see the Governor take another major step toward providing health care for all by expanding Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented adults over age 65, and to see the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which makes our tax code more equitable for women, girls and young families.

We were hoping to see additional investments for CalWORKs and SSI grants in this proposal, since they are both crucial for lifting Californians out of poverty. We will continue to advocate for those increases in the final budget agreement.

Below are our initial reactions to the proposed budget by issue area. We will release an in-depth analysis next week.

Housing

The proposed budget appropriately treats the state’s homelessness crisis as an emergency. The proposal devotes additional resources to help people at risk of homelessness remain stably housed and to increase both temporary shelter capacity and permanent housing options for people already experiencing homelessness. We are pleased to see the Governor’s sustained commitment to addressing homelessness and look forward to working in partnership with his administration and legislative leaders to further develop effective, sustainable solutions to the crisis that prioritize residents living in poverty.

We agree with the Governor that the state must ramp up efforts to address the state’s shortage of housing, which is primarily a shortage at lower income levels. We are eager to work with the Governor to ensure that policies and programs to speed housing production prioritize the creation of units for households with the lowest incomes who are priced out of the rental market in every county in the state, protect low-income communities and communities of color from displacement, and increase access to high opportunity areas for our clients.

Financial Security

The budget includes funding to increase the CalWORKs child support pass through (read about it here). Currently, the first $50 of child support paid by a non-custodial parent goes to the CalWORKs family, but any amount over that is kept by state and federal governments. In the Governor’s newly proposed budget, CalWORKs families with one child will keep the first $100 of child support, and families with two or more children will keep the first $200 of child support, beginning January 2022. It also includes funding to provide debt relief for child support owed to the government that is deemed uncollectable. We are grateful that the Governor has heard from parents and families in their call for a child support program that works for children, and we are eager to see proposed associated trailer bill law changes for details. We look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to achieve the goals of conforming with federal law and regulation, and ensuring the program works to benefit the children it purports to help.

The budget also includes the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which will make our tax code more equitable, since taxes on period products and diapers are regressive to poor families and young people. We look forward to continuing work in the legislature to end unmet diaper need and period poverty in California.

Additionally, the budget makes a $92 million investment in reducing criminal justice fees and their harmful, recidivistic impact on people with low-incomes and people of color, their families, and their communities. We are grateful to Budget Chair Mitchell for her leadership on this issue and look forward to working on details with her, the Governor, and other budget leaders. We’re also happy to see that Californians with low incomes will soon be able to reduce the cost of their traffic fines and the overall impact of expensive traffic tickets, with this budget proposing to expand the traffic court ability-to-pay pilot program (currently operational in four counties) statewide over several years. The pilot has yet to be evaluated, so we look forward to details from the Judicial Council to see if the program’s reductions in fines and fees are adequate or need to reduced further.

Finally, to further enhance financial security for Californians, the Governor’s budget creates a new state version of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The proposed financial watchdog will hold banks and other financial firms accountable when they engage in unfair and abusive debt collection and banking practices. Medical, student loan, school lunch, and other forms of debt disproportionally burden people experiencing poverty; we expect this new agency to offer important protections for our clients.

Health Care

We applaud the Governor for continuing to move toward universal coverage by making California the first in the nation to expand full-scope Medi-Cal to all income-eligible seniors regardless of immigration status, taking a whole person approach to Medi-Cal, and cost containment with an eye toward quality and equity. We look forward to working with the administration and legislature to advance a budget that ensures equitable access to affordable, comprehensive, quality health care for poor Californians.

The Governor’s proposal also delays suspension of benefits and eligibility, by extending certain Medi-Cal benefits (optical, audiology, podiatry, speech therapy, and incontinence creams and washes), extending Medi-Cal eligibility from 60 days to one year for post-partum women diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and expanding Medi-Cal screening for the overuse of opioids and illicit drugs, all until July 2023.