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

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

Congress Should Preserve SNAP Policies That Help States Shield More Families From Hunger

June 19, 2013

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — called CalFresh in California — provides food assistance to more than 4 million low-income Californians, mainly families with children. At a modest $1.63 per person per meal, CalFresh benefits have helped many households put food on the table during difficult economic times. Unfortunately, changes currently under consideration at the national level could weaken this critical resource for struggling California families.

Congressional efforts to reauthorize the Farm Bill — the package of legislation that, if passed, will set much of the nation’s agriculture and nutrition policy for the next several years — have picked up steam in recent weeks, and both the House and the Senate versions of the bill would make large cuts to SNAP. One proposed change included in both bills would restrict the flexibility that states now have in administering SNAP, thus scaling back or eliminating program features that have helped California to respond to high poverty and unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession. On top of any new cuts that occur, an already scheduled across-the-board reduction in benefits will affect all SNAP recipients starting November 1, costing a household of four approximately $25 a month in lost benefits — the equivalent of about half a month’s worth of meals over the course of a year.

The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, which passed on June 10 with bipartisan support, contains about $4.1 billion in cuts to SNAP. The bill would impose restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which enhance SNAP assistance for families who also participate in the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). In addition to boosting benefits for many households, the Heat and Eat option helps states simplify paperwork and reduce administrative costs. California’s Heat and Eat policy went into effect January 1, 2013 and would be affected by the proposed change. Nationwide, it is estimated that the Senate bill’s cuts would reduce SNAP food assistance for 500,000 households by an average of $90 per month.

The House version of the Farm Bill, which is being debated this week, would have even more damaging repercussions for low-income families living with food insecurity. This bill would cut about $21 billion from SNAP, causing nearly 2 million people nationwide to lose benefits. The House version, like the Senate’s bill, includes restrictions on the Heat and Eat policy, but on a larger scale, affecting approximately 850,000 households. It would also impose a number of other restrictions. Most notably, the House bill would eliminate the “broad-based categorical eligibility” option, which over 40 states — including California — have used to broaden SNAP eligibility to more families in need, particularly low-income working families with high child care and housing costs.

The House bill would also cut funding for nutrition education, end SNAP incentive payments to states for improving program administration, and cause more than 200,000 low-income children to lose access to free school meals. On Monday, the White House issued a statement that the President would veto the House version in its current form, pointing out that the bill takes too much from programs like SNAP that prevent hunger and does not include needed reforms to crop insurance subsidies.

One in six California households have difficulty affording a nutritionally sufficient diet. CalFresh has proved critical in softening the harshest effects of hunger, particularly for children — who make up nearly three-fifths of CalFresh recipients. Researchers examining the impact of early childhood access to SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) have found that those who participated in the program have significantly better outcomes as adults in terms of health, educational attainment, earnings, and self-sufficiency.

As Congress shapes the direction of the nation’s agriculture and nutrition policy for the coming years, federal policymakers should preserve states’ ability to connect more families with SNAP and augment the amount of food assistance households may receive. This is especially important for states — like California — that are still struggling with high poverty and unemployment after the deepest economic downturn in generations.

— Hope Richardson