SSI/SSP and the Governor’s Proposed 2015-16 Budget: Recession-Era Cuts Remain in Place

January 29, 2015

During the dark days of California’s recent budget crisis, state policymakers had to make very tough choices about which critical public services to cut, and by how much. At the time, there was a general expectation around the state Capitol — and throughout California — that as the economy improved and revenues came back, policymakers would undo some or all of the reductions that they imposed during and following the Great Recession.

While lawmakers and the Governor have begun to reinvest in important services and systems over the past couple of years, some key programs remain on the chopping block despite a growing state economy and higher revenues. This list includes one of California’s most important public supports for seniors and people with disabilities: SSI/SSP (the Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment program). SSI/SSP uses both federal (SSI) and state (SSP) dollars to provide modest monthly grants that are intended to help 1.3 million low-income Californians keep a roof over their heads and purchase food and other basic necessities.

We described the state’s recession-era cuts to SSI/SSP cash assistance in a previous blog post. The bottom line is that state policymakers cut California’s portion of the grant from $568 to $396 for couples and from $233 to $156 for individuals. As a result, the maximum grant for individuals — currently $889 per month, including the federal SSI grant — amounts to just 90 percent of the federal poverty line. (In 2015, the poverty line for an individual is $11,770, or roughly $980 per month.) These state cuts undoubtedly increased hardship for vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities. Yet, they remain in place today, and the Governor proposes to maintain the state’s SSP grants at their current levels in 2015-16, the fiscal year that begins this coming July 1.

While the significant human cost of the state’s cuts to SSI/SSP grants is impossible to quantify, we can assess the impact on the state budget. These cuts substantially lowered state support for SSI/SSP, as shown in the following chart.

Human-Svcs---SSI-SSP---Funding;-State-$-CHART

In 2007-08, the year the Great Recession began in California, the state spent about $3.9 billion for its share of SSI/SSP cash assistance, after adjusting for inflation. The Governor proposes to spend $2.5 billion on SSI/SSP grants in 2015-16, more than one-third below the 2007-08 level. In other words, after taking into account the cost of living, the state is providing $1.4 billion less for SSI/SSP grants than it spent on the eve of the Great Recession — and this despite the fact that the number of Californians enrolled in SSI/SSP has risen by more than 5 percent since 2007-08.

So, when the Governor forecasts balanced state budgets for the next few years, it’s important to keep in mind that this promising fiscal scenario rests on a troubling assumption: that state policymakers will leave in place the recession-era cuts to SSI/SSP grants, perhaps permanently. Put another way, the Governor’s proposed budget is built on well over $1 billion in annual state “savings” that come from reducing a critical source of basic income for more than 1 million of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

As this year’s state budget debate heats up, state lawmakers — and all Californians — should ask themselves if this is the kind of “fiscal prudence” they bargained for.

— Scott Graves


Few Eligible California Seniors Receive Federal Food Assistance

December 17, 2014

One in seven Americans had trouble affording enough food in 2013, according to federal data released earlier this year. Among seniors 65 and older, 8.7 percent were food insecure nationwide. Yet, seniors are less likely than other demographic groups to participate in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In this post, we examine county-by-county trends in food assistance for California seniors, a strikingly small share of whom receive CalFresh — California’s version of SNAP. (See map below for seniors’ CalFresh participation by county.) In previous blog posts, we looked at county-by-county enrollment in CalFresh for the overall population and for children specifically.

(Click here for three years of data and a full-size map with 2013 data.)

Seniors enroll in CalFresh at rates that are strikingly low compared with their poverty rate. Statewide, 10.4 percent of California seniors lived below the poverty line in 2013, and a 2011 survey that found that 9.5 percent of California seniors were food insecure. However, only 2.6 percent of seniors in California participate in CalFresh.

One big reason for the discrepancy between food insecurity among seniors and their receipt of food assistance is this: California is the only state in which recipients of Social Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) grants are not eligible for SNAP. This state policy has been in place since 1974, the beginning of the SSI/SSP program. Initially, California’s SSI/SSP grants were generous enough that recipients were eligible only for the minimum SNAP benefit of $10. To ease the paperwork burden, the state implemented a “cash-out,” which provided a few extra dollars in the SSI/SSP grant for food. However, the overall SSI/SSP grant has failed to keep pace with inflation, and the maximum grant for an individual is now below the federal poverty line.

About a third of the state’s SSI/SSP recipients are seniors; the rest are people with disabilities. Unfortunately, simply ending cash-out in order to make seniors eligible for CalFresh is also likely to decrease benefits for families living with a person with disabilities, families who are particularly vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity. Policymakers can ease food insecurity and help seniors and other vulnerable Californians by investing in SSI/SSP to gradually bring grants above the poverty line. They could also index the grants to inflation to prevent further erosion.

Among seniors who aren’t enrolled in SSI/SSP but whose incomes are low enough to qualify for food assistance, some may believe that the minimum CalFresh benefit for which they may qualify — $15 per month — is not worth the paperwork, while others may be embarrassed about receiving public assistance. This is why counties are concentrating on targeted outreach strategies, such as ad campaigns that focus on seniors and screening events at senior centers.

Clearly, there is much to be done to help California seniors access CalFresh. Good nutrition and reliable access to food are among the most important preventive care strategies for diabetes and heart disease. Seniors who have trouble putting food on the table are about 50 percent more likely to report a heart attack or develop asthma, and are 60 percent more likely to experience depression, compared to seniors who have adequate access to food. Broadening the reach of CalFresh can keep California’s seniors healthier while helping them avoid having to choose between paying for food and paying rent, medicine and other necessities.

— Miranda Everitt


Statement From Chris Hoene on the New LAO Forecast: “California Must Continue to Reinvest”

November 20, 2014

Yesterday, Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget Project, released the following statement in response to the new long-term fiscal forecast from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO):

“The new budget forecast from the Legislative Analyst’s Office is encouraging on some key fronts, with the economy continuing to recover and the state regaining its financial footing. California’s public K-12 schools and its community colleges are expected to see additional dollars, both in the current budget year and looking ahead to 2015-16.

“We also see in this forecast that state policymakers have the opportunity to significantly rebuild support for other vital public services, while continuing to save for a rainy day and pay down state debts. Especially in light of a recovery that has failed to reach so many individuals and families, California must continue to reinvest in child care and preschool, the CSU and UC systems, support for low-income seniors and people with disabilities, and the other foundations of a strong economy and healthy communities.”


Today We Honor Our Veterans, but What About Tomorrow?

November 11, 2014

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed over two million Americans to the rigors of military training as well as to warfare conditions. A new study of veterans in Los Angeles found that many returning veterans are not prepared to transition to civilian life and require culturally competent approaches to helping them reenter society. In particular:

  • The study surveyed nearly 1,200 pre- and post-9/11 veterans from all military sectors residing in Los Angeles County. Of the post-9/11 veterans, 41 percent were age 30 or younger, 34 percent had at least a four-year college degree, the vast majority received an honorable discharge from service, and almost three-quarters were people of color.
  • More than one in five post-9/11 veterans had an annual income below or nearly below the federal poverty line.
  • Forty percent of post-9/11 veterans reported being homeless in the past year. This includes veterans who slept in a transitional residence — like a shelter, friend or family member’s home, motel, jail, or hospital — as well as in a public place.
  • Twenty-four percent of post-9/11 veterans reported suffering from severe physical health symptoms, and just under a quarter had been screened positive for a mild traumatic brain injury.
  • Forty-six percent of post-9/11 veterans screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder, 46 percent screened positive for depression, and 15 percent had considered attempting suicide.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted the failure of service organizations to meet veterans’ needs:

…veteran support agencies are typically organized to support only one or two of these issues. For instance, it is typical to see ‘campaigns’ targeting veteran employment or housing, while ignoring health and education (including skills training and deployment), assuming, often incorrectly, that other agencies are meeting the veterans’ needs in these areas. […] Service providers must recognize that a holistic approach to veteran support is needed, and that they most likely only represent one or two parts of that approach, and maybe not even the most important part, depending on the needs of the veteran.

Unaddressed homelessness, physical and mental health issues, and chronic unemployment put veterans at risk of contact with the criminal justice system. Although reliable data are scarce, a 2013 study found that in 18 randomly selected states, between 2 and 20 percent of the prison population reported having veteran status. The study reviewed more recent localized data and concluded that the proportion of incarcerated individuals who are veterans is rising. The analysis also raised the concern that veteran courts — specialized alternative court systems for veterans — may not be responsive to the complexity of the problem. The study stressed the importance of understanding the often lasting effects of military service that shape veterans’ behavior and yet are often overlooked by the courts and treatment teams.

These studies emphasize the importance of recognizing the unique needs of our veterans and the absence of comprehensive public services and supports to address them. Service agencies must make a commitment to working collaboratively to support individuals returning from the military.

— Selena Teji


Five Years Later, State Cuts to Assistance for Low-Income Seniors and People With Disabilities Remain in Place

November 3, 2014

One of California’s most important public supports for seniors and people with disabilities who struggle to make ends meet marks a dubious 5th anniversary this month. In November 2009, state policymakers put into effect the third in a rapid series of cuts to Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) grants, which are funded with both federal (SSI) and state (SSP) dollars. These state cuts reduced the monthly SSP grant for couples from $568 in January 2009 to $396 by November of that same year. The monthly SSP grant for individuals fell from $233 at the outset of 2009 to $171 by November. Less than two years later — in July 2011 — state policymakers put in place an additional $15-per-month cut, dropping the SSP grant for individuals to $156 per month. (For an overview of these state cuts and their impact, see this recent CBP presentation.)

The SSP cuts in 2009 came as the Great Recession gripped California and state lawmakers looked for ways to reduce spending in the face of a two-year, $60 billion budget shortfall. Today, although the state’s economy and finances have been slowly recovering from the downturn, low-income Californians who rely on SSI/SSP cash assistance have been left behind. While the SSI portion of the grant has modestly increased in recent years due to federal cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), the state’s SSP portion remains frozen at recession-era levels: $396 for couples and $156 for individuals, the minimum levels allowed by federal law. Why haven’t SSP grants gone up? Because — in addition to reducing SSP grants in 2009 — state policymakers eliminated the annual state COLA. As a result, the state’s portion has not been increased to reflect changes in California’s cost of living over the past several years.

Without a doubt, these budget cuts substantially lowered the state’s costs for SSI/SSP. In 2007-08, the year the Great Recession struck, the state spent about $3.8 billion on its share of SSI/SSP cash assistance (in 2014-15 dollars). Fast forward seven years: California will spend a projected $2.5 billion on SSI/SSP grants in the current fiscal year — more than one-third below the 2007-08 level. This substantial drop in state spending has occurred even as the number of Californians enrolled in SSI/SSP has increased, rising by 6 percent — to 1.3 million — since 2007-08.

But these state “savings” have come at a tremendous cost to low-income seniors and people with disabilities. SSI/SSP cash assistance once uniformly lifted recipients out of poverty, but no more: Today’s maximum grant for individuals equals just 90 percent of the federal poverty line, jeopardizing the ability of seniors and people with disabilities who rely on these grants to afford basic necessities such as food and housing. The value of SSI/SSP grants has fallen so sharply in recent years that the state’s SSP portion would have to increase by nearly $100 per month in order to bring the total grant for individuals up to the 2014 poverty line.

SSP-up-to-FPL-Chart

Five years ago, in the midst of a severe budget crisis, the state made a series of deep cuts to SSI/SSP grants. The question now — for state policymakers as well as the general public — is whether these reductions, which target some of California’s most vulnerable residents, should be temporary or permanent.

— Scott Graves


Looking Ahead, State Must Go Much Further in Boosting Payments to Child Care Providers

October 31, 2014

The Senate Select Committee on Women and Inequality convened last week in Los Angeles to explore strategies for promoting economic opportunity for women in California. Throughout this hearing, the importance of child care was a recurring theme. As Senator Holly Mitchell discussed, the state’s 2014-15 spending plan includes some reinvestment in the state’s child care and development system, including an increase in child care provider payment rates.

Provider payment rates are a key issue in helping women and their families to advance. Adequately reimbursing child care providers increases families’ access to providers. When women have access to affordable child care, they are more likely to find and keep jobs and to have money to pay for other necessities such as rent and groceries. This is critical for their own economic success and for the well-being of their children, too. Policymakers had not raised provider payment rates since 2006, and the recently approved increase is long overdue.

However, policymakers have more work to do, especially for families who use vouchers to pay for child care (as opposed to going to child care providers that contract directly with the state). Even with the rate increase included in the budget agreement, scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2015, voucher-based providers offering care in licensed family child care homes (LFCH) will not see an increase in their payment rates for infant care in more than half of California counties. Similarly, these providers will not see an increase in rates for preschool-age children in 19 counties. In fact, across the state so few counties will see an increase that the median percent increase for LFCHs for infant care is 0 percent. For preschool-age children the median percent increase is just 1.2 percent.

In addition, even while it might appear that licensed child care centers (LCCs) fared well in the budget agreement, the median increase in the provider payment rates for infant care at LCCs translates to just $131 a month — and this after nearly a decade without any rate increase. Likewise, the median rate increase for preschool-age children in LCCs is $103 per month. The table below displays how both kinds of licensed providers fared in the 2014-15 budget cycle. (You can also view a PDF of this table here. )

103014 childcare-reimbursement-blog

As we discussed in a recent blog post, California has far to go in restoring funding to the child care and development system in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Access to subsidized child care and preschool programs is a key component in helping families achieve economic security, and it is critical that policymakers continue to take steps to reinvest in California’s child care and development system.

— Kristin Schumacher


California Reduces Disparities in Drug Sentencing Laws

September 30, 2014

This past weekend Governor Brown announced that he had signed Senate Bill 1010 into law, eliminating the disparity between sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine for sale in California. SB 1010 continues a positive national and statewide trend of divesting from drug war policies that are ineffective in promoting — and can be harmful to — public safety.

Crack cocaine is a product derived from processing powder cocaine with an alkali, such as baking soda, to make it smokable. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug and can cause the same effects when used.

Despite the similarities between these two products, sentencing laws differ in how the substances are penalized in the criminal justice system. Nationally, individuals selling small amounts of crack cocaine on the streets have received more severe sentences than have wholesale suppliers of powder cocaine. In California, possession for sale of powder cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, whereas possession for sale of crack cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of four, five, or six years.

These unbalanced penalties have more significantly affected communities of color, even though the likelihood of someone using crack cocaine does not differ based on their race given similar social and environmental conditions. From 2005-06 through 2009-10, African Americans in California were imprisoned for possessing crack cocaine for sale at a rate that was 43 times that of white people and four times that of Latinos.

SB 1010, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell, reduces the penalty for possessing crack cocaine for sale to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, thereby bringing it in line with that for powder cocaine. Additionally, the bill aligns property forfeiture laws and probation eligibility requirements associated with crack cocaine with those for powder cocaine. This is a welcome reform that equalizes penalties for drug law violations and will help to reduce the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

This bill is also expected to have a positive impact on California’s finances. The Senate Appropriations Committee projected potential state savings from SB 1010 in the low millions of dollars each year. These savings would result from reduced prison sentences and fewer prison commitments. Given the prevalence of problematic drug use in California, these savings might best be invested in effective community-based drug treatment, education, and prevention services that could improve public safety in the longer term.

SB 1010 represents a muchneeded reform to a larger body of drug laws that have failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption of controlled substances; impeded public health measures designed to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, overdose fatalities, and other harmful consequences of problematic drug use; and resulted in arbitrarily harsher consequences for low-income communities.

— Selena Teji