Patrick Sabey, 4, and his mother, Caroline, who recently lost her job, make… (Christina House / For The…)
Earlier this month Caroline Sabey crossed a threshold she never imagined she would see: the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.
The single mother had been laid off in February from her $55,000-a-year job as an executive assistant. Almost immediately, Sabey, 42, struggled to make ends meet. She went to the county hoping to get money to buy food for her two young sons.
By asking for help, Sabey joined a growing number of middle-class families applying for government aid only to discover that their safety nets -- savings, severance packages, unemployment payments -- put them at a disadvantage in a system designed to serve the very poor.
At the crowded Chatsworth Social Services office, Sabey waited hours. Caseworkers had her apply for food stamps and CalWorks, which offers cash benefits for families.
Late last week she was told her application was denied. Her monthly unemployment payments of $1,943 put her $36 over the federal income limit for food stamps. The monthly income limit for a family of three for CalWorks was even lower.
"What happens to us middle-class families who were making good money and then boom, something like this happens, and we have to meet these guidelines?" she said, adding that her unemployment check barely covers her rent and basic bills. "I don't think America was prepared for us to fall under this."
County officials say Sabey's story is increasingly common. At a meeting earlier this month of the county's Commission for Children and Families, participants were startled when Miguel Santana, a deputy to the county's chief executive, told them caseworkers are turning away those who are not already "living in their cars."
Santana later said that he had exaggerated a bit, but only to underscore how stressed the system is. He called the system for determining benefit eligibility "a very ineffective way of helping people" that "doesn't consider this very unique circumstance we are in."
"A lot of these folks, once the economy picks up again, are going to be able to land on their feet," Santana said. "But it's going to take a while. What's going to happen in between?"
In February, the county denied 6,605 applications for CalWorks -- which saw a substantial increase in requests from two-parent families -- about 18% more than the same month last year. Among those who applied for and received CalWorks were 674 two-parent families, 37% more than the same month last year.
Food stamp denials were up 14%, general relief denials were up 10%, and Medi-Cal denials were up 7%.
Philip L. Browning, the county's director of social services, said the increased denials reflect an overall surge in applications for assistance in recent months. Although the largest spikes in demand for aid were in working-class and low-income communities, middle-class areas also saw significant increases.
But to qualify for CalWorks, a family of four cannot earn more than $1,218 a month or have more than $2,000 in cash or property, not including their home. If they have a car worth more than $4,650, the added value counts as property. To qualify for food stamps, an application that takes into account monthly living expenses such as rent and utilities, the same family cannot earn more than $2,297.
Although the county has earmarked more than $195 million in stimulus money for CalWorks, and $12.5 million for homeless services, that is not likely to reach middle-class families, Santana said. He estimated that it will cost hundreds of millions more to expand such help. "The funding we're getting from the stimulus is barely going to cover the increase in demand," he said. "Now we have to find money for those who are on the cusp of becoming eligible."
The new demand and changing clientele are apparent in busy Social Services offices countywide. Food stamp applications at the Chatsworth office increased 20% this February over last, with CalWorks applications up 23% for the same period.
Browning said he visited the office a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, expecting it to be nearly empty. Instead, he entered a waiting room crowded with people dressed professionally, briefcases in tow.
"All the seats were full, and you could really tell the difference in the people, people who had not been to a public welfare office before," Browning said. "Some of the intake staff will tell you they are seeing many more people like themselves and are saying, 'There but by the grace of God go I.' "