By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When her husband left, Rocio Barba’s minimum-wage job did not bring in enough to cover the care of her two children, the mortgage, the car payment and the credit-card bills.
Single mom Antoinette Soto lost her position as a school- district office clerk, and found herself unable to pay her bills and feed herself and her daughter.
Aurora Padilla had no experience working outside the home when her husband walked out, leaving her with no means of support. Now the 45-year-old and her two teenage children sleep in her car outside the house of a friend who lets them in to use the bathroom.
For the first time in their lives, all three women recently applied for public aid, in the form of food stamps. All were denied. Why? Their cars are worth too much.
In 1977, the cap on the car allowance for food-stamp applicants was set by the federal government at $4,500. Since then, the feds have increased the limit just once, by $150, or 3 percent, to $4,650. Adjusted for inflation, that figure today would be nearly $13,000, according to the L.A.-based Western Center on Law and Poverty. (Even Ronald Reagan‘s 1984 Task Force on Food Assistance warned that the vehicle limit was out of whack and should be raised.)
While most states got around that low federal cap for food stamps by adopting a much higher cap for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF (if you qualify for TANF, you automatically get food stamps), California did just the opposite, making the limit for the state’s version of TANF -- called CalWorks -- the same as that for food stamps. As a result, California, land of the automobile, where public transportation is spotty at best, has one of the nation‘s most stringent caps on the value of a car for those applying for public assistance.
What that means is that if you live in the Golden State and your car is valued at more than $4,650, you cannot get food stamps or, for that matter, CalWorks. (You are exempted if someone in your family is disabled, if your car is your home or in some way an integral part of your work, or if you live in the desert and need your car to haul water.) But even in this highly politicized era of welfare reform, 39 other states -- many with Republican governors -- either have no cap on the value of one auto (the states include Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Maine and Kentucky) or a limit higher than California’s (the states include Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming).
”It is very frustrating to deal with this issue,“ said Casey S. McKeever, directing attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the main organization lobbying in Sacramento for an increase in the car cap. ”I think anyone who looks at this rationally would agree that there‘s a need to make a change in California and conform with what the rest of the country is doing. It would save everybody a lot of time and hassle and hardship.“
So far, efforts to change the rules in California have failed, but a recent change in federal law has given advocates new hope for the next legislative session in Sacramento. In the meantime, some residents -- many of them single moms -- in need of government assistance to feed their families are not getting the help they need.
Barba, 31, was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments and lost her home. But she managed to hang on to her ’96 Dodge Stratus, which was valued at several thousand dollars over the state limit. It got her to her job at a car dealership, where she often worked until 10 or 11 at night. She persuaded her estranged husband to make the payments, though he does so erratically. Since the car is in his name, she cannot sell it without his consent, and she fears that if he does agree to sell, he will take the profit and leave her with no money to buy another, cheaper car. ”I‘ve got two little mouths to feed,“ Barba said. ”I can’t take the risk of losing the one thing that can help me do that.“
Soto‘s ’98 Chevy Malibu had been vandalized repeatedly, which brought the value down, but not far enough. When Soto, 37, applied for aid, the car was $450 over the limit. ”I was so desperate I told them I would sign the car over to the county,“ Soto said. ”But they said no because I still owed $1,800. They told me to stop making payments so the bank can repossess it.“
The Blue Book value of Padilla‘s ’95 Dodge Neon is $5,000, just a few hundred dollars over the amount that would allow her to get food stamps. She should qualify anyway: According to state and federal law, if you are living in your car you are considered homeless and are exempted from the cap. But Padilla is not willing to report her status, for fear that her children will be taken away. ”Their lives have been disrupted enough,“ she said. ”They need to know that I am there for them, whatever happens.“