Get­ting food stamps to poor Cal­i­for­ni­ans is sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JACKIE BOTTS AND CRESENCIO RO­DRIGUEZ-DELGADO [email protected]­mat­ters.org cdel­[email protected]

In May 2017, the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors set an ambitious goal: en­roll 70,000 new fam­i­lies in food stamps in two years.

Home to the state’s high­est poverty rate and a grow­ing home­less cri­sis, the county was en­rolling just 69% of res­i­dents who were eligible for CalFresh, the state’s name for the fed­eral food stamps pro­gram. With full par­tic­i­pa­tion, the county would have been ex­pected to gain $560 mil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing for its poor.

The so­cial ser­vices de­part­ment got to work, dou­bling down on out­reach, sim­pli­fy­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process with new tech­nol­ogy, and pro­duc­ing data-driven progress re­ports each month.

Two years later, en­roll­ment had only budged slightly.

“At the end of the day, we only got 3,000 new (house­holds). And that was a lot of work we did,” said An­to­nia Jiménez, di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les De­part­ment of Pub­lic So­cial Ser­vices.

Cal­i­for­nia has long strug­gled to get food stamps to the hungry. The state en­rolled just 72% of eligible res­i­dents in CalFresh in 2016, the fifth low­est rate in the na­tion, leav­ing be­hind about $1.8 bil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing ear­marked for the hungry.

In­creased scru­tiny on the par­tic­i­pa­tion gap has prompted a de­bate among state lead­ers about how much im­prove­ment can be gained by pres­sur­ing coun­ties to be more ef­fi­cient and how much will de­pend on more money for county el­i­gi­bil­ity work­ers.

RE­QUIRE­MENTS ARE ‘ALL OVER THE MAP’

Cal­i­for­nia is one of only 10 states that man­age the food as­sis­tance pro­gram at the county level, with a wide range of ap­pli­ca­tion pro­ce­dures, tech­nolo­gies and staffing lev­els. Se­na­tor Scott Wiener, a San Fran­cisco Democrat said the root of the state’s par­tic­i­pa­tion gap is an ap­pli­ca­tion process that varies from “in­cred­i­bly easy” to “un­nec­es­sar­ily com­pli­cated and oner­ous,” de­pend­ing on which county you live in.

“It’s re­ally all over the map and short of trans­fer­ring responsibi­lity of the pro­gram to the state, which would be po­lit­i­cally very dif­fi­cult, we should at least have statewide stan­dards in terms of stream­lin­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process and im­prov­ing aware­ness among our res­i­dents,” he said.

A bill by Wiener would have set a goal for Cal­i­for­nia to en­roll 95% of eligible house­holds by 2024, but didn’t sur­vive a com­mit­tee vote on Fri­day. The leg­is­la­tion would have re­quired the state to over­see im­prove­ment plans and pro­vide tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance to the state’s 58 coun­ties, while coun­ties would be re­quired to of­fer ap­pli­ca­tions en­tirely over the phone. But it in­cluded no money for el­i­gi­bil­ity work­ers.

As the ex­pe­ri­ence in Los An­ge­les and other coun­ties sug­gest, how­ever, in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency alone may not be enough to achieve the state’s goal. County and state of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Wiener, say more state fund­ing is needed.

The state’s 2019-2020 bud­get to ad­min­is­ter CalFresh was $639 mil­lion. Kim­ber­ley John­son, the newly ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices, said she will re­visit the way CalFresh is funded in next year’s bud­get.

“It’s one of our huge safety net pro­grams that we know makes a dif­fer­ence at dis­rupt­ing poverty and that’s crit­i­cal, so it’s cer­tainly a pri­or­ity of ours,” she said.

The de­mand for in­creased fund­ing comes even though Cal­i­for­nia al­ready spends more on ad­min­is­tra­tive costs for food stamp pro­grams than nearly every other state, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent fed­eral study.

IT COSTS MORE IN CAL­I­FOR­NIA

Each Cal­i­for­nia food stamp case cost $808 to ad­min­is­ter in 2016, com­pared to the na­tional av­er­age of $348. The study also found that states in which coun­ties run the pro­gram spent 24% more per case than other states, after con­trol­ling for eco­nomic, de­mo­graphic, and pol­icy dif­fer­ences.

Frank Mecca, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the County Wel­fare Di­rec­tors As­so­ci­a­tion of Cal­i­for­nia, said Cal­i­for­nia is sim­ply a much more ex­pen­sive place to do busi­ness. “Cal­i­for­nia is one of the high­est cost places in the coun­try,” he said. “Our salaries are higher, the cost of liv­ing is higher, work­ers get more hu­mane ben­e­fits.”

Mecca also said the state es­ti­mate that each CalFresh el­i­gi­bil­ity worker should cost $58.27 per hour, in­clud­ing salaries, ben­e­fits and over­head costs, is out of date. The as­so­ci­a­tion cal­cu­lates that coun­ties cur­rently pay about $105 per hour.

CalFresh staffing lev­els vary significan­tly by county, as do par­tic­i­pa­tion rates. Take Fresno and Con­tra Costa coun­ties, for ex­am­ple.

The two coun­ties op­er­ate their CalFresh pro­grams in the same old­school way. The ap­pli­ca­tion in­volves three sep­a­rate steps—an­swer­ing lengthy questions, pro­vid­ing doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in an interview dur­ing busi­ness hours. It takes days to weeks to com­plete. Nei­ther county has a tele­phone-only ap­pli­ca­tion. And both as­sign interview times that may or may not con­flict with ap­pli­cants’ sched­ules.

Yet Fresno County en­rolls about 90% of its eligible pop­u­la­tion in CalFresh, while Con­tra Costa en­rolls less than 60%, ac­cord­ing to state data av­er­aged across 2015 through 2017. With full par­tic­i­pa­tion, Con­tra Costa would have been ex­pected to re­ceive an ad­di­tional $67 mil­lion in fed­eral funds for hungry res­i­dents in 2017.

Staffing data from the two coun­ties in­di­cates that Fresno has about 1.6 CalFresh work­ers per 1,000 peo­ple eligible com­pared to just un­der 1 per 1,000 in Con­tra Costa, based on state es­ti­mates of the eligible population­s in 2017.

Mecca cau­tioned that the state’s par­tic­i­pa­tion rate data are im­per­fect and don’t re­flect gains made by coun­ties over the last two years. Kathy Gal­lagher, di­rec­tor of the Con­tra Costa Em­ploy­ment and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment, also warned that com­par­ing staffing lev­els is mis­lead­ing be­cause the two coun­ties have dif­fer­ent busi­ness mod­els and client needs. But she ac­knowl­edged Con­tra Costa’s pro­gram is un­der­staffed.

Re­cently, Gal­lagher said the county had more than 100 CalFresh in­ter­views sched­uled out more than a month, out of com­pli­ance with the state’s re­quire­ment that el­i­gi­bil­ity be de­ter­mined within 30 days of an ap­pli­ca­tion.

STATE FUND­ING ‘NOT SUF­FI­CIENT’

Con­tra Costa County res­i­dent Eduardo Men­doza, 66, applied for CalFresh in mid-July, but his interview was sched­uled for mid-Oc­to­ber. Un­til then, Men­doza said he would con­tinue get­ting daily free meals at a lo­cal soup kitchen.

“I’m patient, you know,” Men­doza said, “I know I’ll sur­vive.”

Men­doza be­came eligible for CalFresh in June after state law­mak­ers voted to make the pro­gram avail­able to re­cip­i­ents of Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come (SSI), an as­sis­tance pro­gram for the el­derly and dis­abled. The ex­pan­sion made 500,000 more peo­ple eligible for the pro­gram statewide and over­whelmed Con­tra Costa.

For years, ad­vo­cates have im­plored the county to up­grade tech­nol­ogy, in­crease out­reach, and above all, hire more staff. A 2015 grand jury re­port on the county’s un­der­uti­liza­tion of CalFresh rec­om­mended the same.

Coun­ties pay 15% of ad­min­is­tra­tive costs for CalFresh while the state pays 35% and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pays the rest. Each county’s bud­get is also based on last year’s CalFresh en­roll­ment rather than the to­tal num­ber of eligible peo­ple in a county, leav­ing strug­gling coun­ties with lim­ited re­sources to close the gap.

Gal­lagher said, un­like

Con­tra Costa, other Bay Area coun­ties set aside ad­di­tional money to sup­port CalFresh to keep up with the high costs of the area. Mean­while, Con­tra Costa, strug­gling with tight bud­gets and a hir­ing freeze, didn’t pay its full 15% share of ad­min­is­tra­tive costs in sev­eral re­cent years, re­duc­ing the amount of fed­eral and state match­ing funds it re­ceived.

“I think Con­tra Costa is in the po­si­tion of many other coun­ties that don’t have lo­cal rev­enue measures that sup­ple­ment their prop­erty tax,” John Gioia, chair of the county Board of Su­per­vi­sors, said. “Con­tra Costa County re­lies on state fund­ing … but the state fund­ing is re­ally not suf­fi­cient to do the best job.”

In Los An­ge­les, county su­per­vi­sors hoped to add 70,000 new house­holds over two years by in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency with­out adding more money. If it had been suc­cess­ful, the Los An­ge­les par­tic­i­pa­tion rate would have grown from 69% to 80% and the county’s poor would have been ex­pected to gain an ad­di­tional $201 mil­lion in fed­eral as­sis­tance.

Jiménez speaks proudly of the changes she made. The de­part­ment mailed peo­ple on Medi-Cal, the state’s health in­sur­ance for low-in­come res­i­dents, an es­ti­mate of their CalFresh ben­e­fit if they applied. It tar­geted out­reach to stu­dents. It rolled out a new one-and-done call cen­ter which al­lows some peo­ple to fin­ish the en­tire ap­pli­ca­tion in a sin­gle phone call. It also be­gan tex­ting re­minders to peo­ple to sub­mit their semi­an­nual re­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion re­ports.

The county pro­cessed 899,000 CalFresh ap­pli­ca­tions over the two years, but nearly as many fam­i­lies dropped off. One les­son learned: “It wasn’t re­ally get­ting peo­ple in the door that was the prob­lem, the prob­lem was keep­ing them in the sys­tem,” Jiménez said.

De­spite adding just 3,000 ad­di­tional house­holds, county of­fi­cials say the pro­gram was a par­tial suc­cess. One rea­son is that the num­ber of eligible house­holds dropped statewide dur­ing the pe­riod be­cause of the strong econ­omy. Had the county kept pace with the state’s en­roll­ment de­cline, over 40,000 house­holds might have un­en­rolled over the two years.

Also, of­fi­cials say the specter of a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­posal that would jeop­ar­dize green cards for le­gal im­mi­grants on pub­lic as­sis­tance caused im­mi­grant fam­i­lies to opt out of pub­lic ben­e­fits. They ex­pect that chill­ing ef­fect will grow after the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced the fi­nal so-called “pub­lic charge” rule in Au­gust (Cal­i­for­nia filed suit against the gov­ern­ment days later).

MEET­ING THE GOALS?

What would it have taken to hit Wiener’s goal of a 95% par­tic­i­pa­tion rate? Way more staff, Jiménez said. “But you know, to be hon­est, I don’t be­lieve in ar­bi­trary goals.”

Even in Fresno, with its high par­tic­i­pa­tion rate, De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices deputy di­rec­tor Linda Du’Chene said her CalFresh pro­gram is “grossly un­der­funded.”

“It’s re­ally about the clients,” Du’Chene said. “More fund­ing means more work­ers; more work­ers means more ef­fi­ciency in our abil­ity to process ap­pli­ca­tions” on time.

Du’Chene said a key to Fresno’s high par­tic­i­pa­tion rate is the county’s part­ner­ship with more than 50 com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions that help reach eligible peo­ple. Con­tra Costa and Los An­ge­les of­fi­cials said they’ve had less suc­cess with out­reach through non­prof­its.

The West Fresno Fam­ily Resource Cen­ter, a com­mu­nity group that helped more than 700 fam­i­lies sign up for CalFresh in 2018, drew over 200 fam­i­lies to its 17th an­nual back to school event in early Au­gust. Or­ga­niz­ers kept track of at­tendee data like primary lan­guage spo­ken, eth­nic­ity, and par­tic­i­pa­tion or el­i­gi­bil­ity in CalFresh. Over 100 fam­i­lies showed a need, ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Yolanda Ran­dles.

“De­spite what folks are say­ing about the econ­omy be­ing great, there are fam­i­lies still suf­fer­ing,” Ran­dles said. “To be able to go to the gro­cery store and pur­chase food, I can’t tell you the im­pact that has on fam­i­lies.”

Jer­rene Richard­son, a 20-year-old col­lege stu­dent in Fresno, be­gan her ap­pli­ca­tion at the event. Un­em­ployed and liv­ing alone, Richard­son said she hoped CalFresh could help her move a step closer to be­ing in­de­pen­dent.

“I re­ally want to be able to get my own food with­out any trou­ble,” she said.

Luis Her­nan­dez/Spe­cial to The Fresno Bee

Fresno Metro Min­istries holds a com­mu­nity meet­ing on CalFresh in Ker­man.

Photo via Jer­rene Richard­son

Jer­rene Richard­son, a col­lege stu­dent, be­gan her CalFresh ap­pli­ca­tion at a back-to-school event in Au­gust.

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