On April 6, 2021, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors ended a degrading and punitive public benefits policy that stigmatized and traumatized some of the most vulnerable members of our community for a generation.
Under “Project 100%,” or “P100,” when County residents applied for financial assistance under CalWORKs (“California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids”), the County required them to submit to unannounced searches of their homes by law enforcement investigators. Ostensibly an income eligibility and anti-fraud program, P100 only applied to families who were not suspected of fraud. Other anti-fraud programs kicked in if an application raised any red flags.
After its inception in 1997, P100 impacted tens of thousands of families suspected of no wrongdoing, simply because they were experiencing poverty and sought help to which they were legally entitled. The history of P100 is intertwined with racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that have long infected discussions of poverty in the United States.
P100 harmed people in at least three different ways. First, because people risked losing benefits if they weren’t home for unannounced searches, they felt trapped in their homes. They were forced to skip doctor’s appointments, and unable to shop or take their kids to school. They experienced stress and anxiety and reported feeling like they were under house arrest. Second, the searches could be intrusive and humiliating. They could last up to an hour, as investigators combed through every nook and cranny of a home – laundry bins, cupboards, bedrooms, bathrooms. Investigators might discover and read personal letters from former spouses. Families were interrogated about the most intimate details of their lives, including sleeping arrangements and child care. They were made to feel like suspected criminals. Children became afraid that their parents would be arrested. Parents feared their children would be taken away. Finally, families were denied crucial benefits for reasons that could only be explained by investigator bias. All too willing to find fraud where none existed, investigators regularly discovered purported “evidence” that single women were relying on unreported sources of income. They were looking for signs of money contributed by unacknowledged male wage earners—the proverbial “man in a closet” underlying the shameful history of midnight raids on welfare recipients. In practice, investigators disqualified families for nothing more than the presence of “extra” toothbrushes, or boxer shorts, or an extra-large t-shirt.
Villafana v. County of San Diego was actually the second ACLU challenge to P100. The first suit was filed in federal court soon after the program’s inception, in 2000.
The first lawsuit, Sanchez v. County of San Diego, was a federal class action suit. It claimed that P100 violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, along with the California Constitution and various state statutes and regulations. The suit was ultimately unsuccessful. Details can be found here.
VILLAFANA v. COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO ITSELF
Although the Supreme Court closed the door on federal challenges to P100, the policy continued to harm San Diego County CalWORKs applicants. In 2018, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties and co-counsel Fish & Richardson P.C. filed Villafana v. County of San Diego, challenging P100 in state court. The suit claimed that P100 violated a California law, Government Code Section 11135, that prohibits state funded programs from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, and other protected characteristics, whether by disparate treatment or disparate impact. Because there was no proof of intentional discrimination that a court would recognize, we claimed that P100 was a form of disparate impact discrimination because it imposed disproportionate hardships on women and people of color compared to the general population, for whose benefit safety net programs exist.
We lost the case in Superior Court, and the Court of Appeal rejected our appeal in late 2020 because it took a narrow view of disparate law and held there was no disparity because the people who suffered from P100 could only be compared to other people seeking CalWORKs benefits, who were also primarily women and people of color. We asked the California Supreme Court to review the decision, arguing this was the wrong test, but it declined to hear the case.
POLITICAL ADVOCACY AND THE END OF P100
Fortunately, our office takes an integrated advocacy approach to advancing equity, in which lawsuits are only one method of fighting for change. At the same time that we investigated P100 and built our state court case, we worked with community partners to pave the way for community engagement and political advocacy. Working as part of the Invest in San Diego Families coalition, our Advocacy team, including our organizers, helped to mobilize public sentiment to create “a community, economy, and government that puts power into the hands of the people who live and work in our communities.” ISDF and other community coalitions and leaders spent years working to create greater accountability and transparency in the County’s budgeting process, pushing for investment in community services, and fighting to eradicate programs like P100 that could discourage people from seeking and enrolling in benefit programs.
This groundwork paid off after the 2020 elections. Supervisors Lawson-Remer and Vargas swept into office as part of a national movement fighting for equity and social justice against racism and nativism. Our lawsuit had kept P100 in the public eye, which made it easier to lobby against the policy. When Supervisors Lawson-Remer and Vargas brought a motion to eradicate the program, our organizers managed to get hundreds of people to provide electronic comments in support of the motion, along with dozens of people who waited nearly 14 hours to provide live telephonic testimony. In the end, the Board voted to abolish the policy unanimously, in a 5-0 decision.