Roughly 2.3 million Californians receive financial help in getting enough food to eat, but it’s the nearly 3 million others who don’t take advantage of the federal food stamp program who are costing themselves—and California.
Some experts are even saying the state’s low enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is known as CalFresh here in California, could contribute to a social and economic disaster.
“There’s a deepening crisis,” says Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate with the nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates. “California’s high housing costs and extreme unemployment are two forces that have put pressure on households.”
Despite increasing need, however, less than half of those eligible for CalFresh assistance receive it, placing California next to last nationally. In other states, about 75 percent of those eligible for federal food stamp help take part, and some states are well above that threshold. Oregon, for instance, reaches about 90 percent of those who qualify.
In California, though, just 43 percent of those eligible take part.
Socially, this means that millions of people are not getting enough to eat, leading to a range of other issues, including health problems and hungry children underperforming at school. In California, about 17 percent of children live in poverty, including roughly 3 million who qualify for free or reduced price meals.
Economically, low participation in CalFresh also leaves money on the table at a time when businesses and California’s tax bureau are badly in need of funds. While the money per day may seem small—$4.50 per individual; roughly about the cost of that bagel and coffee—can still go a long way. Weekly CalFresh assistance equals $31 for an individual, or $325 monthly for a family of four.
“Food stamps stimulate the economy in a variety of ways,” explains Chris Wimer, associate director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal administrator of the food stamp program—has found that every $5 spent from food stamps generates about $9 in related economic activity.
Additionally, CFPA has found that boosting California’s food stamp participation to the 75 percent level would generate about $131 million in sales tax revenue, including $27 million for nongeneral fund expenses.
Instead, low enrollment means California loses out on about $5 billion annually or nearly $9 billion in related economic activity, according to a CFPA report. This includes huge losses at the county level as well.
Santa Clara County is missing out on an estimated $79.6 million in federal benefits per year due to underutilization.
“Leaving these federal funds untapped doesn’t just hurt struggling households; it hurts our economy, as well,” says Tia Shimada, nutrition policy advocate at CFPA and the author of the county report. “Every dollar in CalFresh benefits generates $1.79 in economic activity. Santa Clara County forgoes as much as $142 million in annual economic activity because of low participation in CalFresh.”
At the same time, the level of need continues to increase due to a stalled economy and flat wages.
“Overall, wages have dramatically declined, particularly in the services industries such as hotel workers,” says Sharp.
In addition, the type of person in need of help has also shifted and can include college students, those with jobs but not making enough to get by as well as senior citizens.
“The variety of households taking part has increased astronomically,” Sharp says. “This includes families that have never struggled with unemployment before, and it has had a staggering effect on them.”
Cindy McCown, a senior director for CalFresh programs and services, says the changing face of poverty now increasingly includes the suburbs as well as inner-city neighborhoods.
“What is realistic is that [at] any given time, people need help. You never know when,” she says. “We are seeing people in this downturn of the economy who were at one time donors of our organization, and now they receive help. They’re finding themselves in situations they never thought they would be in.”
Despite this grim news, California is making strides toward helping those in need.
The Law Steps In
In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law several bills that eliminated obstacles to CalFresh enrollment. Assembly Bill 6, for example, ended California’s unusual requirement that mandated everyone who is 18 and over in a household receiving CalFresh be finger printed.
“It should help in lifting some of the access barriers, but it’s going to take time to get in place,” McCown admits, noting that the law goes into effect in January 2012. “You look at that and ask, does it really make sense? Because it costs millions of dollars to administer fingerprints.”
New laws have also ended a rule requiring CalFresh participants file quarterly reports. Instead, California will switch to simplified semiannual, or roughly twice a year reporting, beginning in 2013.
But there are still challenges and threats ahead. “The recession has erased a lot of the social gains made during the 1990s, so it will take a number of years to make that up,” says Caroline Danielson of the Public Policy Institute of California in Oakland. She points to a need for smarter policies such as placing jobs closer to communities and public transit.
CalFresh and Second Harvest Food Bank partner in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, and they are the two largest food providers in the Bay Area for low income individuals and families. According to Second Harvest spokesperson Caitlyn Kerk, the organization provides meals to 250,000 people a month in the two counties—a 50 percent increase since 2007. Meanwhile, CalFresh helps feeds about 50,000 people each month.
But there is a concern that the current deficit reduction talks at the federal level could add to the burden on households in or near poverty, increasing their need for supplemental help.
“The [deficit reduction talks] could reduce support for low-income families,” Stanford’s Wimer says. While the food stamp program may not be a target, he adds, related services such as a women and child component known as WIC could be on the chopping block.
“We’ll have to see how it plays out,” says CFPA’s Sharp. “But right now there is extreme pressure on households and they are struggling to find adequate resources. It is certainly not unreasonable to try to close that 50 percent [CalFresh] gap.”
This story was funded by a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation to do independent reporting on the topic of food access in California. Josh Koehn contributed to this report.