Among the most iconic images of the early pandemic were those of cars lined up for miles outside of food banks. Millions of Americans for the first time felt the threat of food insecurity when they suddenly lost income and the school meals helping them feed their kids.
Enrollment in California’s food stamp program, known as CalFresh, hit a record high in the spring of 2020, and the state is even boosting everyone’s benefits by 15%. But despite this unprecedented need, new research found that more than half of state’s recipients leave the program early — simply because it takes too much work to access their benefits.
“People are six times more likely to leave CalFresh in the month that they have to fill out paperwork to confirm their eligibility,” report author Matt Unrath, a fellow at the research nonprofit California Policy Lab, stated in a Jan. 29 news release.
Most recipients have to confirm their income and other eligibility information six months after signing up for food stamps. Then six months later, and every year thereafter, they have to go through an even more involved reverification process that includes an interview with a county worker. They may also be required to provide documents proving their income, which can be difficult and sometimes impossible for workers who are undocumented or work in the gig economy.
To determine whether reverification was a deterrent or simply screening out people who were no longer eligible, the California Policy Lab, an academic research group that evaluates policy options for government, tracked income data for CalFresh recipients after they left the program, a descendant of the old “food stamps” program. They found that as many as 75% were still income-eligible when they stopped receiving benefits.
Though many of those who drop out eventually re-enroll, the inconsistent access to healthy food has far-reaching consequences. For kids, researchers from Columbia and Temple universities have found that even short-term food insecurity can negatively affect behavioral and emotional health, and in the long run can increase the risk of obesity and related health problems.
And it is these households with young children that have been the hardest hit by food insecurity brought on by the pandemic, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank.
The national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, helps feed more than 40 million Americans. In California, 5.6 million people accessed the benefit in 2019 through the state’s CalFresh program, amounting to about 14% of the state’s population. But federal data shows that California has consistently been one of the worst states in the country at getting food stamps to its needy residents. Only five states had a lower participation rate in 2017, the most recent year available.
State lawmakers are now looking for solutions.
“CalFresh benefits are critical for so many, and lengthy and burdensome bureaucratic processes should not get in the way of people being able to put food on the table,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D) stated in a news release about his recently introduced legislation, Senate Bill 107. “There is an easier and a better way to do this, as many other states with much simpler food benefits application systems show us.”
SB 107 aims to simplify the CalFresh enrollment process by allowing California residents to apply for benefits, and complete any forms requiring a signature, over the phone. Normally people are required to make their initial application in person, though during the pandemic that requirement and others have temporarily been waived. The bill would also create a shorter enrollment process for seniors and people with disabilities.
“During the Covid-19 crisis, federally authorized waivers helped simplify CalFresh enrollment for people in need,” Jared Call, senior advocate with the nonprofit Nourish California wrote in a news release supporting the bill. “But those waivers will expire at some point, and we cannot afford to go backward.”
In addition to the moral imperative of preventing people from going hungry, there is an economic incentive to increase the use of the state food stamp program, advocates for low-income Californians say. Call’s group found that 100% participation in CalFresh — essentially if all the people eligible applied and received food stamps — would bring an additional $2.1 billion in federal funding to the state annually.
Economists have called food assistance an “automatic stabilizer” for an economy in downturn because the benefit dollars not only help the recipients feed their families but also generate business for local markets and restaurants. Every food stamp dollar generates up to $1.50 in economic activity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
The California Policy Lab report authors call on all levels of government to improve the situation. The federal government can lengthen the windows of time between eligibility re-checks and reduce the amount of information required to prove eligibility. States can build out more user-friendly enrollment and verification tools, and counties could allow workers to reverify some cases using administrative data, rather than requiring the recipient to report additional information.
In the meantime, for those who are receiving CalFresh benefits, the state has provided the maximum benefit to all recipients since 2020, according to Scott Murray, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Social Services. Starting this month through June, he said, there will be an additional 15% increase in monthly benefits, he said.
Wiener, whose bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Committee on Human Services, called it lawmakers’ “moral responsibility” to make it easier for all hungry Californians to access this life-sustaining support.
The current underuse, he stated, “is unacceptable under any circumstances but particularly during a pandemic and economic collapse.”