Even as experts say the economy has turned a corner and is recovering from the recession, Ventura County’s human services officials say demand on already strained resources has continued to grow over the past year.

The rate of people applying for CalFresh benefits (the state’s food stamps program) each month in Ventura County, has nearly doubled, said Curtis Updike, the human services deputy director who manages the CalFresh and Medi-Cal programs.

“In ’07 and ’08, just prior to the recession hitting, we were taking 1,400 applications a month (in Ventura County). As of September, it’s up to 2,700,” said Updike, who noted that California traditionally has had fewer people than other states have had applying for programs like CalFresh.

But in Ventura County, which has a 10.4 percent poverty rate and 10.5 percent unemployment rate, the number of CalFresh participants has grown by two-thirds since the official start of the “Great Recession” in December 2007.

“We’re starting to see more participation,” said Updike, referring to a statewide trend. “In December 2008, there were 5.1 million participants (in California); in November 2010, we had 8.4 million.”

Although the average number of Medi-Cal applications per month in the county has been fairly constant — 2,543 from July through November 2009, versus 2,569 during the same period this year — clients are staying on aid for longer periods of time. The average size of a Medi-Cal family receiving benefits in November 2010 was 2.3.

The average number of CalFresh applications per month, from July to November 2009 was 2,613; for the same period in 2010, it was 2,811. The average size of a family receiving CalFresh benefits in November 2010 was 2.2, and the average monthly benefit per family, $295. As with Medi-Cal clients, CalFresh clients are staying on aid longer than before.

A steadily growing number of unemployed have flocked to the county’s career centers, said Lauri Flack, the deputy director in charge of the CalWorks (formerly General Relief, or welfare) program, which helps people find job openings and polish their job hunting skills.

“We’re seeing a lot of people that never thought they would be in our office, never planned to be in our office. It’s challenging for a lot of them,” said Flack. “I just think they never thought they would be in this position of asking the government for help.”

Complicating an already difficult situation, noted Flack, is that many of the newly unemployed are skilled professionals in “retraining mode,” competing against less-skilled people for the same jobs.

“It’s tough now, especially for CalWorks clients,” said Flack. “A typical client is single with kids and has a 10th grade education — that client is competing against better-trained people.”

Helping those clients become more competitive in the job market by improving their reading and math skills has been the biggest shift in providing assistance, said Flack.

“Many of them can go to school, if it’s directly linked to a career, like healthcare, where there’s a demand,” said Flack. More and more families with children are finding themselves depending on public assistance, she said.
“We’ve seen a 31 percent increase (in Ventura County) just since 2008, with a demographic change to more two-parent families,” said Flack. “That’s absolutely, we believe, an economic recession relationship.”

In Ventura County, the average size of a CalWORKs family receiving benefits in November 2010 was 2.4; the average monthly CalWORKs benefit per family in November 2010 was $508.

Flack said that although the county’s Board of Supervisors has been supportive, it’s unclear whether the change in administration in Sacramento next month will make things any easier. Updike added that working with food banks and other community organizations, as well as encouraging people to apply for services online, has helped stretch the county’s funding.

“It’s tough to be certain about any of that right now. It will become clearer as Gov. [Jerry] Brown prepares his budget in January,” said Flack. But in the meantime, “They’re not talking. They’re being pretty tight-lipped.”