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


CalFresh Receipt Among Younger Californians Highlights the Problem of Child Poverty in Our State

August 7, 2014

Recently, we looked at county-by-county trends in the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, known as CalFresh in California. While more than one in 10 Californians received CalFresh overall in 2013, there is significant variation among counties. For example, in parts of the relatively wealthy Bay Area, just about 4 percent of residents were enrolled in the program. But in San Bernardino County and many Central Valley communities, more than one in six people receive help buying groceries.

The California Department of Social Services has created a CalFresh Data Dashboard to help researchers and advocates measure counties’ performance in enrolling recipients, including by providing certain demographic characteristics such as age and language spoken at home.

The map below shows percentages of all children under age 18 in each county who were receiving CalFresh benefits in 2013. These statistics should call attention to the persistent problem of child poverty even at a time when the state is experiencing job growth. Because eligibility is generally capped at 130 percent of the poverty line (about $25,000 for a family of three), high rates of CalFresh use are another indicator of the extent to which many families are still struggling to meet their most basic needs in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Here are some key facts about the share of California children receiving CalFresh benefits:

  • Statewide, one in four children are enrolled in CalFresh. This rate is comparable to the highest county rate for people of all ages, demonstrating that children are especially vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity.
  • In nine counties, at least one in three children are eating with the help of CalFresh benefits. Del Norte, Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Lake, Merced, Madera, San Bernardino, and Tulare counties are home to children receiving CalFresh at rates above 33 percent. This closely matches the counties with the highest overall poverty rates since 2008.
  • Nearly half of all children in Tulare County receive CalFresh. Coupled with a county child poverty rate above 36 percent, this exemplifies the extent to which sections of the state have yet to see the economic recovery.

(Click here to see full county data for 2013 and the two prior years.)

In a recent blog post, we wrote about the importance of CalFresh for children. Research shows that food assistance not only reduces hunger, but significantly improves young children’s health, reducing their odds of being underweight or at risk of developmental delays. These benefits are lasting. A recent academic paper found that low-income children who had access to food assistance early on were significantly less likely to suffer from chronic health conditions throughout their life. The girls in these families generally achieved higher levels of education, had higher earnings, and were less likely to need public assistance as adults.

Efforts to ensure that eligible children obtain food assistance are thus especially important. While it is difficult to estimate the potential number of eligible children not being reached, California’s overall CalFresh participation rate is just 57 percent — the lowest rate in the nation — meaning that nearly half of those who qualify for assistance are not receiving it. While the state pays a portion of administrative costs, counties are chiefly responsible for outreach and enrollment. Comparing county performance over time may yield key lessons on what works to improve access for different segments of the population.

— Miranda Everitt


A County-by-County Look at CalFresh Use in California

July 31, 2014

Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, more than one in 10 Californians now rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — called CalFresh in California — for food assistance. This rate has risen slowly but steadily since 2011.

CalFresh benefits are available to most households with low incomes, generally defined as at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (about $24,000 for a family of three). Caseloads thus closely track trends in poverty rates.

However, California is tied with Wyoming for the lowest SNAP participation rate among all states. In addition, undocumented immigrants are ineligible, as are seniors and people with disabilities who receive a Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP). Taken together, this means that the share of Californians in poverty has been higher than the share receiving food assistance.

As we blogged about this year, poverty rates vary widely by county. The same is true of the share of the population using CalFresh in each county, as the map below shows. The highest rates of CalFresh use are in the counties with the highest poverty rates, such as San Bernardino (18 percent enrolled in the program), Imperial (20 percent), and many Central Valley counties (most with rates higher than one in seven). In Tulare County, one in four residents are receiving CalFresh. In San Mateo and Marin, around 4 percent do.

(Click here to see full county data for 2013 and the two prior years.)

Even as job growth picks up, some counties are faring worse than the state overall. High rates of food assistance in many places show a clear need for policies and programs that reduce poverty.

One of the most important points isn’t captured in the map: Nearly half of those eligible for CalFresh — estimated at 3.2 million people — are not receiving it. Recent efforts to expand access and streamline enrollment should bring help to those who need it. These efforts include ending time-consuming and stigmatizing fingerprinting requirements, and reaching out to newly enrolled Medi-Cal recipients who are likely eligible for food assistance.

Some counties have begun to employ targeted outreach programs to increase participation among underserved populations, especially seniors, non-English-speaking households, and people who are homeless. Comparing county performance over time may yield key lessons on what works to improve access for different segments of the population.

Stay tuned for more analysis of CalFresh data by county, including a special focus on children.

— Miranda Everitt


Policymakers Take Steps to Improve Food Security, but Opportunities to Address Hunger Remain

July 14, 2014

State policymakers have recently taken several important steps to expand access to CalFresh food assistance for California families, but opportunities to address high levels of poverty and hunger in the Golden State remain.

More than 15 percent of California households struggle to afford enough food, even several years after the Great Recession officially ended. And it is especially troubling that more than one-quarter of California children are food insecure. Many administrative decisions that can expand CalFresh eligibility, increase participation, or simplify enrollment are made at the state level, presenting policymakers with the opportunity to make investments and other policy choices that yield broadly shared benefits to California communities. CalFresh benefits, which are 100 percent federally funded, are spent locally at grocery stores and farmers markets. Researchers have found that $1 spent on benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity during difficult economic times.

Given the significant unmet need for — and the broad benefits of — CalFresh food assistance, it is fortunate (as we blogged about earlier) that policymakers took important steps during the recent budget deliberations to expand eligibility.

For example, the 2014-15 state budget creates a new, state-funded energy assistance program that avoids harsh CalFresh benefit cuts that otherwise would have resulted from the new federal Farm Bill. The Farm Bill imposed restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which increase benefits to households who also receive federal energy assistance. More than 300,000 California households would have lost an average of $62 per month, or about one-third of the average household benefit amount. This $10 million state investment will keep $300 million in federal funds flowing to California to be spent on families’ most basic needs.

The 2014-15 budget agreement also helps more low-income families qualify for CalFresh by increasing the gross income limit to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. This change takes advantage of the federal option known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Households will still need a net income — their gross income minus expenses like housing and child care — at or below 100 percent of the poverty line, or $19,790 for a family of three, in order to receive CalFresh food assistance. Taking advantage of broad-based categorical eligibility removes a significant barrier for families who are working, but spend large shares of their income on basic needs, leaving too few dollars in their budgets to provide an adequate diet.

Further, the budget agreement repeals the lifetime ban from CalFresh — as well as from CalWORKs — for Californians with certain drug felony convictions. California now joins 21 other states in opting out of the federal policy creating this lifetime ban, inaugurated as part of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. The state Senate estimates this change will benefit 20,000 Californians directly.

Other Policy Options Left on the Table

While the state has made progress in maintaining or expanding access to critical food assistance, several policy options — which would especially help children and students — remain on the table.

California is tied for dead last among states for overall CalFresh participation, and has the lowest participation rate among eligible working families. Streamlining enrollment processes would lower barriers to participation and ease potential sources of confusion during difficult times for families. These families would also benefit from investments in meals their children are served in the child care and development system.

Some potential policy options include:

o   Reinvesting in nutrition assistance for early childhood education programs. The federal government reimburses child-care providers for nutritious meals and snacks served to low-income children. Recognizing higher food costs in the state, California has contributed state funding to this reimbursement. Yet over the last three years, nearly all of the state’s share has been cut. During the recent budget deliberations, the Assembly proposed a $10 million state reinvestment in early childhood nutrition, modestly increasing reimbursements. The 2014-15 budget agreement did not include this restoration, which would have provided an added incentive for child-care providers to serve nutritious meals.

o   Streamlining eligibility for community college students. Federal law limits CalFresh eligibility for college students, who are generally required to work at least 20 hours per week or be enrolled in a work training program to qualify. This presents a barrier for nontraditional students who do not rely on their parents for support. Assembly Bill 1930 would allow more community college students to qualify for CalFresh by considering participation in EOPS — Extended Opportunities Programs and Services — as work training. This policy change could help more than 70,000 low-income students afford sufficient food and thus be better able to concentrate on their studies. The bill will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

o   Aligning Medi-Cal and CalFresh eligibility. State policymakers have already begun to more closely align programs for health coverage and food assistance, both in recognition of the close relationship between nutrition and health and in an effort to increase efficiency. For example, more than 90 percent of individuals eligible for CalFresh are also eligible for Medi-Cal. Senate Bill 1002 would allow households to renew their eligibility for Medi-Cal and CalFresh at the same time and would help families to more easily maintain benefits and reduce needless paperwork. SB 1002 will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

Food security is a key component of family well-being. CalFresh food assistance provides broad benefits to low-income families and their children and to local communities. State policymakers took several vital steps to expand eligibility to vulnerable populations in the recent budget deliberations. There is more work to be done to help families make ends meet in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

— Miranda Everitt


Budget Agreement Includes Some Advancements for Low-Income Families, but Greater Investments Are Needed

June 30, 2014

The 2014-15 budget agreement (read our initial analysis here) includes a number of investments and policy changes that will help alleviate economic hardship among California’s lowest-income residents, who suffered disproportionately during the recession and who have continued to be left behind in the economic recovery. However, given the magnitude and breadth of the cuts made to California’s core public services and systems — cuts which low-income families and children bore the brunt of even as the state’s poverty rate reached nearly 25 percent — much bolder action is needed to set California on a path toward more broadly shared prosperity. Here’s a quick assessment of how well the budget package addresses the needs of low-income Californians at a time when poverty and long-term unemployment remain high.

The budget agreement makes some advancements for low-income Californians. For example, it:

  • Increases the maximum grant for CalWORKs, which provides modest cash assistance and job-related services to low-income families with children, by 5 percent effective April 1, 2015. This increase, together with the 5 percent increase that took effect March 1, will restore most of the grant cuts made since 2008-09 and will help very-low-income parents with children make ends meet as they search for work or build skills to broaden their employment options.
  • Dedicates funds to help families participating in CalWORKs to obtain safe, affordable, and stable housing. This assistance is extremely important given that the maximum monthly CalWORKs grant for a family of three doesn’t even cover the average cost of a studio apartment priced at “fair market rent” in California.
  • Prevents a substantial reduction in CalFresh food assistance benefits that was slated to occur under recent changes in federal law. As we pointed out in a blog post earlier this year, more than 300,000 households would have lost an average of $62 per month in food assistance absent state action — a cut equal to nearly one-third of the average CalFresh household’s benefits.
  • Expands eligibility for CalFresh by taking advantage of a federal option called “broad-based categorical eligibility.” In a prior blog post, we detailed how this policy change would remove a significant barrier to food assistance access primarily for low-income working families who spend much of their incomes on necessities like child care and housing and thus have little left over for food.
  • Lifts the lifetime ban that prevents parents with certain drug felony convictions from receiving CalFresh food assistance and CalWORKs income support, job-related services, and child care. This change could benefit thousands of low-income children whose parents are currently prohibited from participating in these programs.
  • Provides funding to restore 13,000 child care and preschool “slots” for California children and includes provisions that would make these programs more affordable for some families. Watch for an upcoming blog post for more detail on these policy changes.

However, even with these advancements, the budget agreement places greater emphasis on paying down debt and saving for a rainy day than it does on reinvesting in our communities. Although state revenues are projected to increase more than previously anticipated, policymakers left in place deep cuts to many vital programs and services as well as policy changes that restrict economic opportunities for low-income Californians. For example, the budget package:

  • Does not fully address low-income families’ critical need for affordable, high-quality child care and preschool. The budget agreement restores only a fraction of the 110,000 child care and preschool slots eliminated since 2007-08. With potentially close to 200,000 children on waiting lists for slots, this level of investment doesn’t come close to meeting existing demand.
  • Does not reinstate the statutory cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for CalWORKs grants that was eliminated in 2010-11. Without an annual COLA, CalWORKs grants have been gradually losing purchasing power, making it harder for families to afford basic necessities. Moreover, the grant increase included in the new budget agreement doesn’t go far enough to help low-income families with children escape poverty. Even after the increase takes effect, the maximum monthly grant for a family of three will be about $700 — equal to just 43 percent of the poverty line, well below the deep-poverty cut-off of half the poverty line.
  • Does not restore grant cuts or reinstate the annual COLA for the SSI/SSP Program, which provides modest cash assistance to 1.3 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Policymakers eliminated the COLA in 2010-11 after suspending it several times in prior years and reducing the state’s portion of the grant to the minimum level allowed under federal law. The amount of assistance individuals lose each month due these cuts is equivalent to more than three weeks of groceries – a significant loss, particularly given that SSI/SSP participants are not eligible for CalFresh.
  • Does not restore a 10 percent cut to payments for certain Medi-Cal providers that began to be implemented late last year. Maintaining this cut not only reduces the amount of federal Medicaid funds that flow into the state, but also could discourage some health care providers from participating in Medi-Cal, thus potentially impeding access to care for millions of low-income Californians as enrollment rises.
  • Does not restore a reduction in the total hours of care that In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) consumers can receive. IHSS helps more than 450,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities remain safely in their own homes, preventing the need for more costly out-of-home care. IHSS consumers were hit with an 8 percent across-the-board cut in total hours effective July 2013, and this reduction is scheduled to scale back to 7 percent effective July 1, 2014. The budget agreement leaves this cut in place.

With the highest poverty rate in the nation, California has much work to do to expand economic opportunity. This work is critical: our state’s future prosperity will be largely determined by the extent to which we invest in families, children, and communities today. Fortunately, with state revenues projected to continue their rebound, California should be well positioned to make those investments. We’ll look to policymakers to take advantage of this opportunity and present bolder strategies for leading our state toward long-term economic growth and more broadly shared prosperity. As debates on poverty and economic opportunity unfold in coming weeks and months, watch for additional CBP commentary and analysis on the key policy choices facing our state and what they mean for low-income families.

— Alissa Anderson


Food Assistance: A Proven Tool for Reducing Hunger and Poverty

May 20, 2014

Advocates from around the state are coming to Sacramento this week to raise awareness of hunger in California. On Wednesday, Hunger Action Day, a select committee will examine how inadequate nutrition can be detrimental to children’s development and discuss policies to prevent hunger early in life.

This issue is particularly timely given the sharp increase in recent years in the number of people facing hunger or the threat of hunger. The share of US households considered “food insecure” — unable to regularly afford nutritionally adequate meals — reached an all-time high in the wake of the Great Recession as millions of workers lost their jobs and struggled to feed their families on reduced incomes. Food insecurity increased in nearly every state during the downturn, but California saw the fourth-largest jump, and between 2010 and 2012, an average of nearly one in six of the state’s households faced hunger or the threat of hunger. An astounding 25 percent of California’s children lived in households that were unable to afford sufficient food at some point in 2010, up from 17 percent of children in 2006.

SNAP’s History of Success

The recent rise in food insecurity is cause for concern, but our nation’s past efforts to reduce hunger show that it’s possible to reverse this trend. In the 1960s, before food assistance was widely available, it was common for children in impoverished communities to show signs of severe malnourishment — such as distended bellies or wasting — that today are typically associated with extreme poverty in developing nations. In fact, just two generations ago, some infants born to very-low-income families in the US would die of hunger. Today such tragedies are rare in our nation thanks to the creation and expansion of food assistance programs. The nation’s largest program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as CalFresh in California) can be credited with largely eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in the US.

Research shows that SNAP not only reduces hunger, but also it functions like an immunization, protecting young children from illness. It also cuts children’s odds of being underweight and at risk of developmental delays. And SNAP’s benefits appear to last into adulthood. A recent academic paper found that children from disadvantaged families who had access to food assistance early in life were significantly less likely to suffer from serious, chronic health conditions as adults. Furthermore, the girls in these families were better able to support themselves as adults: they generally achieved higher levels of education, had higher earnings, and were less likely to need public assistance as adults.

Food assistance also is one of the most powerful tools for reducing poverty. By boosting families’ food budgets and thus freeing up income for other necessities, SNAP lifted 4.7 million people nationwide — including 2.1 million children — above the poverty line in 2011. CalFresh kept nearly 800,000 Californians out of poverty that year, including 380,000 children — effectively cutting the child poverty rate by about 4 percentage points.

How California Can Build on SNAP’s Success

California’s policymakers can reduce hunger and poverty even more by expanding food assistance to additional families. Currently, California ties with Wyoming for the lowest SNAP participation rate. Estimates suggest that 3.2 million Californians are eligible for the program but are not enrolled. If every eligible Californian participated, millions of state residents would be better able to afford sufficient food and many would be lifted out of poverty. What’s more, because CalFresh is 100-percent federally funded, maximizing program participation would draw an estimated $3.5 billion in additional federal food assistance benefits into the state, providing a significant boost to California’s economy as well as its families.

State policymakers should be commended for taking a number of important steps in recent years to boost participation in CalFresh, but there are additional actions they could take to further increase enrollment. For example, California could establish a stakeholder advisory committee to identify and recommend effective strategies to improve statewide CalFresh participation, service, and performance.

California could also expand so-called “categorical eligibility,” a simplified enrollment process intended to boost participation in CalFresh. Legislation signed into law last year established categorical eligibility for households with individuals enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for low-income Californians. Specifically, this legislation enables households who have a connection to Medi-Cal and whose gross incomes somewhat exceed the CalFresh eligibility requirement — falling between 130 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line — to qualify for CalFresh as long as they meet the program’s net income test, meaning that their incomes, after subtracting certain expenses such as child care, remain at or below the poverty line. (For a family of three, 130 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line corresponds to an annual income of between about $24,000 and $38,000.) As a next step, the Legislature could approve the Governor’s recent proposal, included in his revised budget, to broaden categorical eligibility to all households — not just those with a connection to Medi-Cal — whose incomes meet these requirements. This proposal would remove a significant barrier to CalFresh enrollment primarily for low-income working families who spend much of their incomes on necessities like child care and housing and thus have little left over for food.

In addition to boosting CalFresh participation, policymakers could take action to prevent a pending reduction in food assistance benefits. Recent changes in federal law imposed restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which boost SNAP benefits for families who also participate in a federal energy assistance program. Absent state action, these restrictions are expected to result in a significant loss of CalFresh benefits — $62 in federal funds per month, on average, for hundreds of thousands of California households. (To put this cut in perspective, the average CalFresh household receives just $200 of food assistance per month.) California policymakers could prevent this substantial cut by adopting the Governor’s recent budget proposal to increase state funding for energy assistance by the amount needed to comply with the new federal requirements. While implementing this proposal would cost the state $10 million, it would prevent California from losing $300 million in federal funds — a substantial bang for the buck.

Why This Matters Now

Boosting participation in food assistance programs is especially critical now given California’s severe drought, which is expected to cause food prices to rise, making it harder for low-income Californians to feed their families. Research suggests that a mere $10 increase in weekly food costs can significantly boost the share of households facing hunger of the threat of hunger.

Moreover, the emergency food providers that many families turn to when they can’t afford enough to eat are anticipating significant challenges ahead. If the drought causes food supplies to drop, food banks expect that they’ll run out of food before serving all of their clients, particularly if demand for their services increases due to higher food prices. Already many food banks have reported increased demand for assistance due to recent cuts to SNAP benefits.

Increasing CalFresh participation has always been a policy win-win given its potential to substantially reduce hunger and poverty while boosting the state’s economy. But with food prices likely to rise in the near future, the case for taking prompt action has never been stronger.

— Alissa Anderson


Hearing Focuses on CalFresh and Food Insecurity in California

March 11, 2014

At a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Human Services Committees today, March 11, at 1:30 p.m. in Capitol Room 437, invited testimony from the California Budget Project will highlight just how prevalent food insecurity is in California and the toll that food insecurity can take on children and families.

Food insecurity occurs when families lack the available means to obtain enough nutritious food to thrive, which means they face hunger or the threat of hunger. This is due to a lack of money and other resources. In California, more than one in seven households were food insecure in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Only 11 states have a larger share of households experiencing food insecurity than does California. The percentage of food-insecure households in our state has increased by 44 percent since 2006, and has remained fairly constant since 2008. This shows that the recovery from the Great Recession has not reached many low-income Californians.

Food insecurity and poverty often go hand-in-hand, but public policies can help address these problems. According to the Public Policy Institute of California’s California Poverty Measure, CalFresh and CalWORKs lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty in 2011. Taking measures to boost CalFresh participation and to increase the CalWORKs grant would go far in reducing food insecurity in California. These are among the issues that the joint hearing will take up today.

— Kristin Schumacher