Counties Need More Support to Boost CalFresh Participation

Here’s a fact that should command the attention of every policymaker in California: Nearly 5 billion dollars in federal funding is lost each year when California families eligible for food stamps aren’t enrolled in the program.

Funny how a state unemployment rate stuck at 12 percent-plus since August 2009 can turn a bureaucratic issue like “program participation rates” into a strategic discussion about economic stimulus.

But that’s the perspective offered in Lost Dollars, Empty Plates: The Impact of CalFresh Participation on State and Local Economies, a report recently released by the California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA). CalFresh is the new name for California’s food stamp program, known nationally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

CFPA also reports that California’s 58 counties vary significantly in the rates that eligible families participate in CalFresh.

And we’re not talking differences of 5 or 10 percent.

In 2009, while four counties provided CalFresh benefits to 70 percent or more of eligible recipients (Fresno – 79%, Tulare, 77%, Del Norte – 73%, Sacramento – 71%),
nearly half of California’s counties (26 out of 58) enrolled less than half of the eligible families.

Two counties, Mono and San Mateo, enrolled less than a quarter of eligible recipients. (Click here for the full county list.)

Because the CFPA statistics are for 2009, they capture the first wave of unemployment and financial distress due to the Great Recession, also a period when federal funding was augmented for CalFresh through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

In other words, more funds were available to respond to the increased demand for CalFresh – which makes the low participation rates even more baffling.

But maybe not.

From 2008 to 2009, average individual monthly participation for CalFresh increased by 521,495, or 23 percent statewide, an indicator of the significant demands on counties to process new applications.

Yet even this dramatic increase didn’t keep pace with the rising number of people eligible to receive assistance as the Great Recession took its toll on California’s working families.

For the same time period, USDA reports that the utilization rate among income-eligible individuals only increased from 37.1 percent to 42.8 percent, leaving the state ranked next to last in the nation.

Clearly, more needs to be done.

Fortunately, needed improvements can build on recent changes to CalFresh that make the program more accessible to the 14 percent of California households identified as “food insecure” (those with limited or uncertain ability to acquire food).

Recipients still have to be poor, very poor, to receive CalFresh, with anticipated income of 130 percent or less of the federal poverty limit (or $29,055 annually for a family of four), but they no longer have to spend down their retirement and savings accounts before receiving help. Recipients can even own reliable vehicles, not just junkers worth $4650 or less.

Both of these policies help families weather lost jobs and incomes without having to hit rock bottom and rebuild assets, a particularly daunting task for retired seniors, according to George Manalo-LeClair, Senior Director of Legislation at CFPA.

Gone also are the days when a stressed-out mother has to manage a toddler and simultaneously dig through her purse to pull out small perforated pieces of paper, all the while trying to ignore the impatient gazes of customers in line behind her.

CalFresh is now distributed through an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT card, which looks like an ATM card. EBTs decrease program administration costs, quicken purchase time for recipients at check-out counters and decrease the stigma of receiving CalFresh.

Going forward, state advocates would like to see additional changes to CalFresh, and first on the list is a repeal of the state requirement that CalFresh applicants be finger-printed (like suspected offenders being processed at the county jail).

Texas and Arizona are the only other states that use finger print imaging, which according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is associated with a 7 percent lower caseload. USDA has put a moratorium on any state adopting finger print imaging, and has formally requested that California drop the practice.

Advocates also recommend that enrollees report income and other eligibility information every 6 months, instead of every 3, making it easier for families to stay enrolled.

California is the only state in the nation that requires quarterly reporting. While the change would cost about $18 million to reprogram computer systems, these costs would be offset by increased enrollment and resources brought into California.

Looking ahead, some advocates also recommend that any portal designed to enroll participants for health insurance available through federal health care reform also determine eligibility for CalFresh, which would be a tremendous opportunity to reach low-income families.

It would be wise for policymakers to move ahead with all of these recommendations – repealing finger print imaging, semi-annual reporting, linking CalFresh and public health insurance enrollment – and more.

But it will take more than changes in public policy to increase CalFresh participation rates.

After reviewing statistics, reading reports, and reflecting on recommendations, one thing seems missing – a technical assistance program to help counties with low CalFresh participation rates enroll more eligible families.

Both CFPA and CWDA host an annual forum for county leaders and others to share strategies about CalFresh, but local leaders also need an ongoing forum to address questions like: What are the best ways to identify eligible families in the county? What are the best practices that help counties streamline application processes? Who are the most effective community partners, and what are the best approaches to setting up partnerships and contracts?

Helping to make this happen would be a valuable and fitting contribution for a California philanthropic foundation – there are defined outcomes and a time-limited grant of three to five years would probably be sufficient.

State policy improvements, past and proposed, are critical to make the CalFresh program more accessible to eligible families. What’s also needed is a technical assistance effort that supports county leaders – and ultimately puts food on empty plates and brings more dollars into the California economy.

Kate Karpilow is executive director of the California Center for Research and Women and Families.

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