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

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

Looming Cut to CalFresh Will Slash Households’ Food Budgets, Drain Millions of Dollars From California Economy

October 30, 2013

This Friday, November 1, all Californians who receive food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known in California as CalFresh) will see a significant drop in their already-modest benefits. Benefits will decline by 7 percent on average, or about $10 per person per month. The maximum monthly food benefit for a family of four, for example, will be cut by $36.

With the poverty rate in California still one-third above the pre-recession level, and many counties still struggling with double-digit unemployment, the deep cuts to households’ food budgets come at a terrible time.

By the Numbers…

Here’s a rundown — by the numbers — of what the SNAP/CalFresh cuts will mean for California:

  • 4.2 million — The number of CalFresh recipients in California who will be affected by the cut.
  • 67 percent — The share of CalFresh households affected by the cut that include children.
  • $1.40 — The average CalFresh benefit per person, per meal after the cut.
  • 21 — The number of meals lost in the course of a month for a family of four.
  • $457 million — The federal dollars that will be lost in California due to SNAP benefit cuts in the coming federal fiscal year. The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP/CalFresh benefits for households.
  • 8 in 10 — Share of the benefit dollars lost in California that would have gone to households with children.
  • $1.79 — The boost to the economy provided by every additional dollar spent on SNAP benefits, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Deeper Cuts to Food Assistance Could Be on the Way

The sudden reduction in SNAP/CalFresh benefits is occurring because an increase provided in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — intended to spur economic growth and prevent hunger in low-income households — expires at the end of October. The higher benefit level was originally supposed to stay in place until annual inflation adjustments caught up, softening the transition for low-income households, but Congress later accelerated the sunset date.

Unfortunately, there is no sign that Congressional leaders plan to halt the SNAP benefit cut. In fact, when House and Senate members meet today to begin formal negotiations on the federal Farm Bill, they will be debating whether to make even deeper cuts to SNAP. The House recently passed legislation that would cut $39 billion from the program over the next decade, potentially eliminating assistance for nearly 4 million people nationwide in the first year alone. Even the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill would cut $4.1 billion from the program over the next 10 years.

In focusing on whether and how much to cut SNAP benefits, the debate in Congress ignores mounting evidence that SNAP is one of the most effective federal programs for fighting poverty and shielding children from the effects of hunger. According to the USDA, the ARRA increase in SNAP benefits cut the number of “food insecure” households in which one or more persons had to skip meals or otherwise eat less — by half a million nationwide in 2009. In addition, recent research demonstrates that early childhood access to food assistance is associated with significantly better outcomes in terms of health, educational attainment, earnings, and self-sufficiency in adulthood.

The Case for Investing in — Rather Than Cutting — SNAP

What if, instead of debating how much to cut SNAP, policymakers were seeking ways to make SNAP dollars go even further toward fighting hunger, improving health, and stimulating local economies? Instead of undermining a program that was one of the strongest elements of the nation’s response to the recent recession, we could be deploying proven strategies to expand SNAP’s reach. For example, we could be ensuring that children get enough to eat when school’s out by providing a summertime benefit increase to families with kids, an innovation that has been shown to significantly increase children’s food security in preliminary studies. Or we could be encouraging healthy food choices by offering incentives for SNAP/CalFresh participants to buy nutritious foods (such as fruits and vegetables) and expanding capacity for the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards at farmers’ markets.

Last year, SNAP lifted more Americans out of poverty than in any other year on record. At a time when many households in California and across the nation are still struggling to make ends meet, such a program is not just worth preserving — it’s worth strengthening.

— Hope Richardson

With Poverty Still Well Above Pre-Recession Levels, House Moves to Cut Critical Poverty-Fighting Program

September 19, 2013

Census data released Tuesday show that SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known in California as CalFresh) lifted 4 million people nationwide above the federal poverty line in 2012.

Because SNAP benefits don’t come in the form of cash, they are not counted as income in the official poverty measure. However, the Census Bureau provides information on how much the official poverty statistics would change if these additional resources were counted as income. In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, SNAP lifted more people out of poverty than in any other year on record.

Despite strong evidence of SNAP’s effectiveness at alleviating the worst effects of poverty and reducing hunger, the US House of Representatives is preparing to vote today on a bill that would slash funding for the program by $39 billion — 10 times the size of the SNAP cuts in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill.

The new legislation, HR 3102, doubles down on cuts previously proposed by the House, in an earlier June version of the Farm Bill that failed to pass. After that attempt failed, the House passed a Farm Bill that left out the nutrition provisions altogether. HR 3102 is a new attempt to pass the nutrition provisions separately, keeping all the cuts to SNAP previously proposed, and adding more to the list.

For example, the new bill would block states’ flexibility to exempt high-unemployment areas from strict rules that limit benefits for jobless adults with no children. While proponents of the bill claim that any qualifying person willing to work or participate in a job training program will still have access to SNAP, most states and localities provide limited, if any, access to “workfare” programs. If state flexibility were eliminated, childless adults unable to find a job or get a spot in a job training program would only be able to receive benefits for three months in any three-year period — even in areas with the highest unemployment. Given that more than half of all California counties are still experiencing double-digit unemployment, this provision is cause for concern.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that HR 3102 would eliminate SNAP benefits for about 3.8 million people — including seniors and low-income working families with children — in 2014. In addition, nearly 3 million people per year over the next 10 years would lose benefits. These cuts are on top of already-scheduled benefit reductions that will affect all SNAP households in a little over a month.

With poverty in California still stubbornly high — about one-third above the pre-recession level — deep cuts to SNAP/CalFresh would come at a terrible time, limiting one of the most effective tools the state has for fighting poverty. In order for low-income families to begin to see the gains that high-income earners have seen during the recovery, we need to strengthen and preserve the safety net for struggling families — not weaken it.

— Hope Richardson

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