State Must Prepare for Human Crisis to Persist Beyond COVID-19

Blog post Frank J. Mecca

Many of us are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic through stories in the news, our social media feeds or our sparing trips out of the house to buy groceries or take-out.  At CWDA, we have a different view of how the pandemic is unfolding — through the data and frontline experiences of our county human services programs serving vulnerable Californians and families.

Applications for CalFresh (California’s version of the federal SNAP program) have soared. In the first week of March alone, applications increased by 243% compared to the same week in 2019.   This tells us that hunger is one of the most immediate human impacts from the pandemic-induced recession. The influx of applications continues as unemployment mounts and hundreds of thousands of families find they simply don’t have the money to buy food.

In Child Welfare Services, we are dismayed to see the trendline moving in the opposite direction.  Child abuse reports have sharply declined, down more than 50% in San Diego County and 44% in Orange County compared to pre-pandemic levels.  Unfortunately, these numbers are not a sign that fewer children are in danger but rather that they have lost contact with teachers, supportive school staff and other community members who are often the first to spot signs of abuse and neglect and report these issues to county child welfare agencies.

These are just two early indicators of the scale of a human and economic crisis that is likely to continue far beyond the immediate health threat of COVID-19.

We deeply appreciate that Governor Newsom, his administration and the Legislature have worked in partnership with counties to support our continued delivery of services that save lives, prevent hunger and connect vulnerable children and older adults to the resources they need to stay healthy.  Our partnerships have made it possible for county human services departments to:

  • Harness technology to safely shift some services online, including video assessments for In-Home Supportive Services and some Child Welfare Services visits.
  • Prioritize social workers to receive personal protective equipment so they can keep themselves and clients safe while doing in-person visits and other outreach to children, families and vulnerable adults.
  • Deploy additional funding for eligibility workers and shift existing staff and resources to meet the surge in demand for CalFresh, CalWORKs, Medi-Cal and other essential programs.
  • Invest in outreach and overtime to do additional check-ins on older adults and persons with disabilities.
  • Partner with regional non-profit organizations to deliver assistance to immigrant families left out of the federal stimulus and unemployment insurance programs, connecting these families to longer-term human services programs for which they are eligible.

Beyond the above examples, CWDA is working closely with our state partners to secure additional, urgently needed guidance and flexibility to help us support the safety net programs that Californians need to weather COVID-19 and its immediate economic effects.  As just one example, the state can help support the Californians who are counting on us right now by continuing to advocate for the federal government to expand the number of online retailers authorized to accept grocery orders through CalFresh – a new program California is working to quickly implement – and to push these stores to waive delivery fees so clients can stretch their CalFresh dollars further.

Even as physical distancing orders ease, county human services departments and the people we serve won’t be back to business as usual for some time.  That’s because in addition to the anticipated demand for services from families who’ve had the economic rug pulled out from under them, we’ll be facing a backlog of child welfare cases that have been delayed by court closures and those that will come to light when children return to schools.  Seniors who have been isolated and at risk of neglect as well as COVID-19 will need additional support.

While mass layoffs and school closures have caused widespread pain across the economy, we know from experience delivering poverty-fighting programs that the harshest toll is likely to be taken on workers with the lowest incomes and their families, single parents in low-wage jobs and older adults who were becoming homeless in alarming numbers even before the pandemic struck California.

Even before California re-opens, we can and must focus on Californians who’ve been repeatedly knocked down — by growing income inequality, the Great Recession, the housing affordability crisis, and now the global pandemic.  Subsidizing employers to make sure they can rehire people and income support for everyone affected by COVID-19 — including undocumented immigrant families — must be part of our recovery strategy.   Our state budget must also account for the increased demand the economic downturn will put on safety net programs, provide support for added outreach for vulnerable children and seniors, and ensure full funding for efforts such as the Continuum of Care Reform and the Family Urgent Response System so foster children and youth and their families have the supports and services they need now and through the economic downturn.

Even as county human services departments grapple with the additional challenges of conducting our vital work under the pandemic, we know our mission is more important than ever.  No one knows how long the economic toll of the coronavirus will last, but we do know that poverty, hunger, abuse and neglect can have lifelong consequences.

For these reasons, CWDA and our members on the front lines will continue working to help vulnerable Californians and respond to these challenges as we’ve always done.