If peo­ple sign up, state can get more food stamp funds

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JACKIE BOTTS [email protected]­mat­ters.org

Cal­i­for­nia, a state with the na­tion’s high­est poverty rate, con­sis­tently ranks near the bot­tom when it comes to en­rolling low-in­come peo­ple in CalFresh, the state’s name for the fed­eral food stamp pro­gram.

That trans­lates to a lot of fed­eral money that Cal­i­for­nia for­sakes each year. Low-in­come Cal­i­for­ni­ans would have re­ceived an ad­di­tional $1.8 bil­lion in 2016 in fed­eral fund­ing if CalFresh reached every el­i­gi­ble per­son, es­ti­mates Cal­i­for­nia Food Pol­icy Ad­vo­cates, a non-profit that pro­motes greater ac­cess to food for low-in­come peo­ple.

“It’s out­ra­geous that so many Cal­i­for­ni­ans strug­gle to put food on the ta­ble,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Fran­cisco. “We’re leav­ing money on the ta­ble and peo­ple aren’t get­ting the food that they need. It’s time to kick into gear, stream­line the sys­tem, get peo­ple signed up and stop with the ex­cuses.”

Just 72% of el­i­gi­ble Cal­i­for­ni­ans were en­rolled in CalFresh, the fourth low­est rate in the na­tion in 2016, the last year for which na­tional data is avail­able. A bill by Wiener, cur­rently wind­ing through the Assem­bly, would re­quire the state to en­roll 95% of el­i­gi­ble house­holds by 2024, with no county en­rolling fewer than 85 per­cent. It also re­quires the state to de­velop a new met­ric to bet­ter track who’s get­ting CalFresh at a lo­cal level and who’s not.

“I’ve sat with folks who shared tear­ful hugs at the re­al­iza­tion that they would have $200 ex­tra in their bud­get for food and I’ve also sat with peo­ple so frus­trated with the process that they gave up en­tirely,” Francesca Costa, who does CalFresh out­reach at a non­profit in San Fran­cisco, said at an April leg­isla­tive hear­ing. “This is a loss not just for them, but for their fam­i­lies, for Cal­i­for­nia’s econ­omy.”

CalFresh, fully funded by the fed­eral govern­ment and gen­er­ally avail­able to house­holds earn­ing less than 200% of the fed­eral poverty level be­fore taxes, which is about $4,184 per month for a fam­ily of four. The pro­gram reached 3.9 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans in 2018, but roughly 1.5 mil­lion missed out on the monthly pay­ments, which av­er­age $270 per house­hold.

Nine states, in­clud­ing coastal neigh­bors Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton, en­roll nearly every el­i­gi­ble per­son. That Cal­i­for­nia trails far be­hind the rest of the coun­try has long vexed state of­fi­cials.


The state has steadily im­proved the pro­gram’s reach in

re­cent years, up from a dis­mal 51% par­tic­i­pa­tion rate in 2010. That’s due in part to law­mak­ers at­tempts to stream­line the ap­pli­ca­tion process, drop­ping a re­quire­ment for fin­ger­prints, a test of fi­nan­cial as­sets and a life­time ban on peo­ple with drug-re­lated felony of­fenses.

Cal­i­for­nia also launched a part­ner­ship five years ago with Code For Amer­ica, a non-profit that works to mod­ern­ize govern­ment ser­vices, to cre­ate a user-friendly on­line ap­pli­ca­tion called GetCalFres­h.org. Small tinker­ing made a big dif­fer­ence, like mak­ing the web­site mo­bile-friendly, break­ing up hard-to-cal­cu­late ques­tions about in­come into mul­ti­ple steps and al­low­ing peo­ple to up­load doc­u­ments on smart­phones. All told, more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple have used the site.

“We’ve been mak­ing pretty good progress in in­creas­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion over time,” said Alexis Fer­nan­dez, act­ing chief of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices CalFresh branch.

But reach­ing Wiener’s goal of get­ting CalFresh to nearly all el­i­gi­ble house­holds will re­quire Cal­i­for­nia to reckon with an ar­du­ous ap­pli­ca­tion process that leads many to give up or not try at all. Un­like most other states, Cal­i­for­nia’s pro­gram is ad­min­is­tered at the county level, cre­at­ing a va­ri­ety of ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses statewide.


Some coun­ties would have to do a lot more to catch up than others. Con­tra Costa got CalFresh in the hands of just about half of el­i­gi­ble peo­ple in 2017, com­pared to nearly full en­roll­ment in Fresno County, ac­cord­ing to state data.

“When you have a legacy of bar­ri­ers and 58 coun­ties ad­min­is­ter­ing CalFresh in dif­fer­ent ways, you have to ac­tu­ally proac­tively re­move bar­ri­ers,” said Tracey Pat­ter­son, of Cal­i­for­nia Food Pol­icy Ad­vo­cates, a spon­sor of the bill.

The el­i­gi­bil­ity cal­cu­la­tion is com­plex and ex­cep­tions abound, so ap­pli­cants must an­swer dozens of ques­tions, pro­vide sup­port­ing doc­u­ments, and at­tend a manda­tory interview al­ways dur­ing work­ing hours. A missed phone interview is a prin­ci­pal rea­son peo­ple give up on CalFresh, ac­cord­ing to Code For Amer­ica.

Wiener’s bill also re­quires coun­ties to al­low peo­ple to ap­ply en­tirely over the phone, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing a sig­na­ture, rather than hav­ing to visit a wel­fare of­fice or mail in pa­per­work. Cur­rently only 19 coun­ties of­fer this.

“We shouldn’t have a DMV sit­u­a­tion in terms of how you ap­ply to CalFresh,” Wiener said, re­fer­ring to long lines and in-per­son pro­cesses at the Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles. “You shouldn’t have to go into the of­fice.”

Pat­ter­son hopes that by cre­at­ing bet­ter met­rics the bill will re­align coun­ties’ in­cen­tives to im­prove par­tic­i­pa­tion, evok­ing the adage that “what gets mea­sured gets done.”


At present, coun­ties can only be pe­nal­ized for giv­ing peo­ple too much ben­e­fit, which could lead some county work­ers to re­quire ex­tra doc­u­men­ta­tion from ap­pli­cants to prove their el­i­gi­bil­ity.

“When you’re look­ing at what coun­ties are eval­u­ated on in terms of their over­sight from the state, it is their er­ror rate and their time­li­ness rate,” Pat­ter­son said. “That can run in some­what of a dis­in­cen­tive to a cul­ture of el­i­gi­bil­ity, where you’re try­ing to fig­ure out how to make sure that you get every­one pos­si­ble through the process and get it right the first time.”

The pend­ing leg­is­la­tion lacks any fund­ing for coun­ties to im­prove their ap­pli­ca­tion process or in­crease out­reach, caus­ing some lo­cal of­fi­cials to raise con­cerns about how they could achieve the new goals.

“We def­i­nitely need more state and fed­eral fund­ing, be­cause we’d have to add staff,” said Kathy Gal­lagher, direc­tor of the so­cial ser­vices depart­ment in Con­tra Costa County, home to a hardto-reach se­nior pop­u­la­tion. Cur­rently, only one in five el­i­gi­ble se­niors in Cal­i­for­nia re­ceive CalFresh com­pared to the na­tional av­er­age of 42 per­cent.

Ad­vo­cates counter that there’s plenty of lowhang­ing fruit that will cost lit­tle to fix.

But Fer­nan­dez, of the state’s CalFresh branch, said: “I hes­i­tate to call them low hang­ing fruit. If they were low hang­ing, we would have done them. These are re­ally com­plex is­sues. Lo­cally things look dif­fer­ent across Cal­i­for­nia de­pend­ing on com­mu­ni­ties where our par­tic­i­pants are liv­ing.”

Coun­ties with large pop­u­la­tions of work­ing poor, un­housed peo­ple and im­mi­grants face unique chal­lenges.

In Cal­i­for­nia, im­mi­grants liv­ing in the U.S. legally can be el­i­gi­ble but many worry that re­ceiv­ing CalFresh will hin­der the chances that they or fam­ily mem­bers get cit­i­zen­ship, par­tic­u­larly in light of a pro­posed rule from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that would block some le­gal im­mi­grants from get­ting a green card if they use–or are deemed likely to use–pub­lic ser­vices like health care, food as­sis­tance and hous­ing pro­grams.

De­spite the chal­lenges, Weiner is op­ti­mistic about the goals in his leg­is­la­tion.

“I don’t think it’s too am­bi­tious. I think the coun­ties have had all the time in the world to fix these prob­lems and they’ve made some progress but it hasn’t been fast enough,” Wiener said.”It’s time to just get the job done.”


CalFresh out­reach staff mem­bers set up a ta­ble to an­swer stu­dent ques­tions at Cal Poly’s Univer­sity Union Plaza.

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