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Patrick Sabey, 4, and his mother, Caroline, who recently lost her job, make lunch at their home in the Oak Park community of Ventura County, Calif. - TPN

Struggling, but not enough

LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, single mom Caroline Sabey crossed a threshold she never imagined she would see: the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

Sabey had been laid off in February from her $55,000-a-year job as an executive assistant.

Almost immediately, Sabey, 42, struggled to make ends meet. She went to the county hoping to get help buying food for her two young sons.

By asking for help, Sabey joined a growing number of middle-class families applying for government aid only to discover that their safety nets — savings, severance packages, unemployment payments — put them at a disadvantage in a system designed to serve the very poor.

At the crowded social-services office, Sabey waited hours. Caseworkers had her apply for food stamps and CalWorks, which offers cash benefits for families.

Late last week she got news she found devastating. Her application was denied. Her monthly unemployment payments of $1,943 put her $36 over the federal income limit for food stamps.

"What happens to us middle-class families who were making good money and then, boom, something like this happens, and we have to meet these guidelines?" she said, adding that her unemployment check barely covered her rent and basic bills.

Los Angeles County officials say Sabey's story is increasingly common. At a meeting last week of the county's Commission for Children and Families, participants were startled when Miguel Santana, a deputy to the county's chief executive, told them caseworkers were turning away anyone not already "living in their cars."

In February, the county denied 6,605 applications for CalWorks — which saw a substantial increase in requests from two-parent families.

Food stamp denials were up 14 percent, rejections of general relief applications were up 10 percent, and 7 percent more Medi-Cal applications were denied.

Philip L. Browning, the county's director of social services, said the increased denials reflected an overall surge in applications in recent months.

To qualify for CalWorks, a family of four cannot earn more than $1,218 a month or have more than $2,000 in cash or property, not including a home.

If it has a car worth more than $4,650, the added value counts as property. To qualify for food stamps, an application that takes into account monthly living expenses such as rent and utilities, the same family cannot earn more than $2,297.

Although the county has earmarked more than $195 million in stimulus money for CalWorks, and $12.5 million for homeless services, that is not likely to reach middle-class families, Santana said.

Meanwhile, Sabey has registered with five temp agencies, is studying for a bachelor's degree in psychology and has applied for everything from call-center operator to restaurant hostess. No one's hiring for jobs that pay more than $25,000 — too little to support her family.

She is seeking support from her estranged husband in court.

Sabey, who says she had a sheltered childhood and never before experienced financial distress, was surprised to see that the referral list she received from social services included a homeless shelter for single mothers. She had no idea such places existed.

"Why are we allowing single mothers to get to that point?" she said. "Why aren't we doing something?"

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