Let Them Eat Cars

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.“

Barba and Soto have also spent nights sleeping in their cars with their children. When Barba confided this to a case worker, she said, Child Protective Services threatened to take her kids unless she found permanent housing.

Before welfare reform, the value of a car was based not on its market value, but on the applicant‘s equity; if a person owed $3,000 on a $7,000 car, the value would be set at $4,000 and the person would qualify for aid. Under the old system, both Barba and Soto would have qualified for food stamps as well as CalWorks.

For two years State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) led the effort in Sacramento to get a bill through that would have raised or eliminated the cap on the car allowance (known as the ”auto resource rule“), or at least changed it back to the equity system. At a time when ”welfare to work“ is the mandate coming from all quarters, California’s car cap creates a barrier to employment, Aroner argued. According to a study conducted by Paul Ong, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, people with cars are not only more likely to get jobs, they work more hours and make more money than those without cars.

Further, said Aroner, California‘s car cap costs money. An analysis by the state Department of Social Services found that administering the cap -- processing estimates and filling out the rest of the paperwork associated with tracking the value of an applicant’s car -- costs the state $6.5 million a year. Raising the cap would retain that cost. Eliminating the cap would wipe it out.

Of course, raising or removing the cap would mean more people would qualify for aid. If the cap were eliminated, the net cost of aid to those new recipients, according to the budget subcommittee, would be $17.4 million, a 0.2 percent increase in California‘s total CalWorks budget. The increased aid could help women like Barba, Soto and Padilla, and in so doing it would be money well spent.

Aroner’s first bill, AB 1233, made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee in 1999 (strictly along party lines) with a $7,500 limit based on equity value. When it got to the Assembly floor, however, AB 1233 stalled. The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass, but the Republicans made it clear that they were not willing to support it, and the proposal quietly died.

During the 2000 legislative session, the outlook seemed promising for another try at easing or eliminating the auto-resource limit, but when the Republicans got wind of the proposal, they balked. Led by Roy Ashburn of Kern County, the GOP leadership issued a press release in June that raised the specter of the mythological ”welfare queen,“ asking ”Expanding the CalWorks Rolls (Royce)?“ In the release, the Republicans threatened to stall approval of the state budget over the car cap and several other proposed changes to welfare. ”These Democratic proposals do nothing but provide a disincentive to get off government assistance,“ declared Ashburn in the press release, ignoring the fact that Kern County had officially taken a position in favor of changing the car-cap rule.

During budget negotiations, Governor Gray Davis made his opposition to any CalWorks changes clear. He did not want to be known as the governor who undid welfare reform. Once Davis spoke, Democratic support started to crumble: Making it easier for poor people to get food stamps does not seem to be the kind of issue that most pols consider worth fighting for.

These repeated failures have upset many activists, who deal with needy applicants every day. ”They don‘t want the American public getting mad because people on welfare are driving Cadillacs,“ said Elena Ackel, an attorney for Legal Aid of Los Angeles. ”If you don’t want people driving certain cars, tell me. But this is ridiculous.“ Frank Tamborello, of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, said that he has seen many struggling families shut out by the car cap. ”The food-stamp rolls are dropping disproportionately to the drop in the poverty level,“ he said. ”The resulting paradox is hunger in a strong economy.“


Until the political climate in Sacramento changes, Assemblywoman Aroner is unlikely to try again. ”Obviously I‘m reluctant,“ she said. ”The need for change is there, but the political will is not.“

At least not in California. In Washington, D.C., the mood is significantly more magnanimous. In early October, Representative James T. Walsh, a New York Republican, proposed that $1.5 billion of the budget surplus be used to expand the food-stamp program, enabling an estimated 240,000 more people to qualify for food stamps nationwide. The proposal, which originated in the Hunger Relief Act, passed with bipartisan support. The measure allows states, beginning in July 2001, to set their own limits on the car cap for food-stamp applicants. Most are expected to revert to the much higher caps they have already set for Temporary Aid to Needy Families.

It will be significantly more difficult for California to take advantage of the change. Because the CalWORKs car cap is already $4,650 -- the same as the food-stamp cap -- the Legislature will have to up the CalWORKs limit for the new federal law to have any effect.

Perhaps the feds’ largess will inspire the Sacramento pols to rise above partisanship and enact this long-overdue reform. The first opportunity will come with the new legislative session in January 2001. Perhaps the cause will be taken up by Senate Pro Tem John Burton, or Speaker Bob Hertzberg, or some other influential pol who can open his or her eyes wide enough to see that not everyone is rolling in green from savvy stock investments. Until then, women like Rocio Barba, Antoinette Soto and Aurora Padilla will be out of luck.

California‘s a tightwad on food stamps

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >