Public Benefits Practice with Directing Attorney Hope Nakamura, an interview by Tim Clark

Tim Clark

Tim Clark

It takes a lot of energy to live poor in San Mateo County. Unless, of course, you don’t mind going without—without food, without housing, without health insurance, without necessities that many of us take for granted.

Antipoverty programs that support poor people are not straightforward, and handling the complexities of CalFresh (food stamps) or Section 8 housing subsidies is not for the faint of heart, especially for those with physical, mental or emotional disabilities. The rules for different programs are confusing, conflicting and otherwise overlapping, and a mistake in reporting to the agency that writes the check can mean repaying benefits, often from income reduced by loss of benefits. 

The challenges of applying for government benefits, reporting income and remaining eligible becomes too much for many impoverished clients of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

“We are like tax preparers for poor people,” says Hope Nakamura, directing attorney who runs the public benefits practice at Legal Aid. The goal: “Keeping clients compliant with the often-contradictory requirements of government aid programs.”

Typically, Legal Aid’s clients are disabled, elderly or have families, and appealing denied benefits is a paper-based process, on forms that may need to filed at different agencies in different locations. “By definition, if you’re 65-plus or disabled, you can’t get around easily,” Nakamura notes of her clients.

Benefits to poor San Mateo County residents are paid through a sometimes-bewildering array of federal, California and county programs, many administered by county government:

  • CalWORKs, state/federal welfare of $799 max for a family of three
  • General assistance, county welfare for single adults
  • CAPI, state cash assistance for legal immigrants who are elderly or disabled
  • CalFresh (food stamps)
  • Section 8 housing subsidies

Then there’s federal SSI (supplemental security income) for individuals over 65, blind or disabled provided they meet a host of other requirements: Limited income and resources, legal U.S. resident or citizen, stayed in the country at least 30 consecutive days, not imprisoned or hospitalized at government expense (think VA hospitals). Beneficiaries must allow the government to review their financial records, and they must apply for any other cash benefits for which they may be eligible (for example, pensions, Social Security benefits) before SSI kicks in.

Most of the SSI requirements seem doable if detailed (provided you are comfortable in bureaucratic English), until a relative in Guatemala gets sick and the SSI recipient must go help with caregiving for a couple of months.

That’s when Nakamura and her team of two lawyers and two admins on Legal Aid’s Safety Net Services Project are summoned. Attorneys, who average caseloads of 120 per year, mostly don’t go to court but argue for clients before administrative law judges. A case typically takes 5-10 hours of attorney time, although a complex case may eat up 50 hours. Attorney time is spent filing administrative appeals, checking financial records and negotiating with agencies.

“An increasing number of San Mateo County children and adults need assistance to meet their basic needs for food and shelter,” says Nakamura. “The erroneous denial of benefits can have a devastating impact on a needy family trying to make ends meet. We work with the appropriate state, federal, and local agencies to correct the situation and renew the necessary benefits.”

Nakamura describes the system as “patchwork and begrudging” where government agencies act “more as a gatekeeper than as a helper.” Legal Aid pushes for clients “so the programs work as well as they can.” Nor is she confident the system can be rationalized: “Not in my lifetime. There’s an ingrained view in society that people are poor because they are lazy. “

“There are too many specific, differing rules,” says Nakamura, herself a recognized expert on benefits eligibility. Recently the California Supreme Court granted review in Christensen v. Lightbourne, a case Nakamura has been working on for six years with the Western Center on Law & Poverty. The case will decide whether court-ordered child support paid to another family can count as income in a CalWORKs application.  

Over her 29 years at Legal Aid, Nakamura has seen shifts in the population it serves. Today, poor people often have someone in the family who is disabled or laid off from work. “We’ve seen the economy swing from full-time employment to part-time work without benefits, including no medical benefits.” That swing has put more formerly middle-class workers on to government benefits. After the economic crash of 2001, she recalls, “We had ex-engineers applying for benefits.”

She also sees well-educated immigrants, teachers and scientists, who cannot speak English well enough to practice their chosen professions and get pushed into lesser-paying jobs.

Many clients are forced to take more than one job to support their families, a situation made worse by the Bay Area’s rapidly rising rents, which force families to triple up in apartments, live out of cars or move in with extended family members. 

Doubling up on part-time jobs to make ends meet can inadvertently throw clients off the “benefits cliff”: Additional wages can cause workers to lose benefits because their income rises above the maximum allowed to receive government aid, often a different level for different programs. 

The case of an Iranian woman and her immigrant family illustrates the complexities of managing income. A scientist in her home country, she moved to the U.S. with two sons and her husband, who soon left the family. She works two jobs—one keeping the books at her son’s school and another at a relative’s dental office. Her income fluctuates because of school vacations, and that messed up her food stamp eligibility.

She later quit her main job to care for her elderly mother, who has cancer.   Meanwhile, her eldest son was enrolled at UC-Berkeley, and full-time students are not eligible for food stamps unless they meet an exception. So the son uses an on-campus food bank at Berkeley, and when he’s home between terms, the family’s food stamp allotment should increase (because he meets an exception)—until he returns to campus.

By definition, Nakamura says, people on her Safety Net Services team pull for the underdogs, their clients. For attorneys and clients alike, the work can be frustrating, dealing with government benefits bureaucrats every day, but it has tangible rewards: 

“You see the relief on their faces when they win,” she says. “We help people keep their benefits.”

Tim Clark is a partner at The FactPoint Group, a Silicon Valley-based research and consulting firm dedicated to the business improvement of its clients. He is a dedicated Legal Aid volunteer concerned with the issues facing low-income persons in our community.