Lost suppers

In Butte County and the rest of California, millions of federal food-stamp dollars are left on the table

by Hugh Biggar
September 9, 2011
News & Review

One day last May, Monica Turner received a notice in the mail that tested her usually upbeat personality. Out of work since October and supporting two children, she was about to be evicted.

Unsure what to do next, Turner reluctantly turned to two sources for help. For the rent, her parents agreed to lend a hand. For food and other basic needs, Turner, like 192,000 others in Sacramento County, turned to public assistance known as CalFresh, or food stamps.

Turner paid her rent and wasn’t kicked out. But for food and necessities, she entered a bureaucratic labyrinth, one from which she has yet to emerge. It’s truly a maze, but those who stick it out win a prize of roughly $31 a week, or up to $367 monthly for a two-person household, $668 for four people.

But Turner was hindered by the food stamp process’s web of appointments and paperwork. Many Californians give up or don’t bother. As a result, the state leaves $4.9 billion in benefits on the table each year, money that could juice the economy by $8.7 billion in related activity.

In Sacramento County, this means $57.5 million in untouched benefits and $103 million in lost economic impact. In Butte County, more than $40 million in potential benefits goes untouched, funding that could amount to $72 million in increased economic activity.

Forces in Sacramento and the nation’s capital are now working hard to change the way people participate in the federal food-stamps program, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (CalFresh is the name given to California’s program). Improving California’s participation could provide a potent injection for a sick economy, a booster shot that California could mainline straight into its corroded veins. At the same time, this elixir would also help people in need, people such as Turner, and provide a jackpot return on the investment.

At the moment, California faces some embarrassing statistics. Despite need, the state ranks next to last nationally in food-stamp participation. Less than half of those eligible in California enroll, compared to a national average of 70 percent.

In contrast, 90 percent of those eligible in Oregon take part.

For certain populations in California, these numbers are even lower. Roughly 10 percent of seniors (defined as those older than 60) sign up for CalFresh. Individuals convicted of a nonviolent drug offense are not allowed to enroll. In Sacramento County schools, only 30 percent of children who qualify for federally subsidized free lunches, or 35,624 students, take part.

At the same time, the need for help has grown in the past three years due to unemployment rates between 11 percent and 15 percent. “Since 2008 the number of people coming through our doors has just exploded,” said Cathi Grams, director of Butte County’s Department of Employment and Social Services.

These are the newly unemployed, she said—folks who’d worked in construction and banking or who were self-employed and were broadsided by the recession. The CalFresh caseload count locally has gone from 7,132 in January 2006 to 12,612 in May 2011. That last figure translates to 27,002 individuals, and doesn’t include the county’s 3,800 CalWORKs recipients, Grams said.

But that’s only about half the people who are income-eligible for the program, she added.

Such uneven access to food, known in official circles as food insecurity, is happening in a region renowned for its agriculture and produce. “The fact people are not getting enough to eat, especially when we live in such a fertile area, is a crime,” said Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, who added that about half of those eligible for CalFresh in Yolo participate.

The dismal participation rates and lack of access to good nutrition also come with long-term social consequences, affecting such things as school performance, life span and susceptibility to diseases, and even obesity. Instead of food stamps, residents look to fast food and high-sugar, high-calorie eats.

Looking for work and supporting a family, Monica Turner hopes her meal ticket comes in soon.

Red tape: It’s what’s for dinner

CalFresh is an obstacle course requiring stamina and will, one with a paper trail that only half bother to complete.

Take the case of Monica Turner.

Formerly a phlebotomist, Turner lost her job at Kaiser Permanente last fall. She then relied on financial aid from her classes at Sacramento City College to help support her 12-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. But by May, with the onset of summer and the end of classes, that aid was set to expire.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Turner, 40. “I looked everywhere, even food-service jobs, but nothing turned up. I have worked and paid taxes since 1994 and hadn’t considered food stamps before, because I figured people who needed it were worse off than me, but by then I didn’t have any choice.”

The last week in May, Turner visited Sacramento County’s social-services office a block from her home in Midtown. There, she learned she had to go to a different office in north Sacramento, a considerable distance for her since she didn’t have a car.

After initial appointments—filling out multiple documents, undergoing a face-to-face interview with a caseworker, traveling to her daughter’s middle school to have forms signed—she also had to be fingerprinted, a requirement in California and just two other states. After borrowing a car to drive to the north Sacramento office for fingerprinting, she then had to drive an hour to pick up her son at school and bring him to the office for fingerprinting, too.

All adult members of households applying for CalFresh must be fingerprinted and photographed.

Her process remained unfinished. This summer, she had to take part in a seven-week jobs program in order to receive CalFresh, requiring more trips to north Sacramento and adding the challenge of figuring out child care while she was there.

“It seems a little unnecessary for me, because I already know how to write a résumé,” she said. “It is supposed to help with networking, but I would rather be out knocking on doors.”

Audelia Ortega knows what Turner is going through. Originally from Durango, Mexico, Ortega moved to the Sacramento area, became a citizen—a requirement for CalFresh in most cases, although those in the country for humanitarian reasons or approved as permanent residents are also eligible—and worked 25 years at fruit canneries before retiring.

She applied for CalFresh a year ago, at a time when her husband was sick and his pension wasn’t making ends meet. His illness, however, demanded around-the-clock attention, making it difficult for her to leave his side to visit social-services offices and wait in line. She also has diabetes, which makes walking difficult and requires frequent insulin shots.

Further complicating matters for Ortega was her limited ability to speak English and limited reading skills.

In order to fill out the mandatory reports for CalFresh every three months—another unusual and costly California requirement; most states request reports semiannually, or every six months—she had her niece help out. But the forms were sent in Spanish, a language unfamiliar to her niece, who then had to translate back and forth between the forms and her aunt. When she has questions, Ortega also has had trouble finding staff who speak Spanish.

“It is very difficult,” said Ortega, 79, through a translator. “I can’t hear very well and have a hard time understanding and responding in English.”

“The barriers she faces are pretty representative of the many barriers [people] face in applying for CalFresh,” added Edith Martinez, CalFresh outreach coordinator for the River City Food Bank. “And many don’t make it through the process because of the excessive verification requirements, difficulty attaining out-of-office appointments, complicated forms … lack of linguistically competent workers, all of which can make it a difficult process.”

In addition to people going hungry, the economic consequences for California are also significant. The Oakland-based nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates, for instance, has found that raising the state’s food-stamp participation levels would also add $131 million in sales-tax revenue, with $27 million for non-general-fund expenditures. Full participation would also yield $40 million for California’s cash-strapped county budgets.

“If we set the bar at 75 percent of all eligible individuals participating, the state would gain an estimated $4.5 billion in economic activity,” argued Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate for CFPA. To put it another way, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this “economic multiplier effect” breaks down as follows: Every $5 spent through CalFresh trickles up as $9 to the general economy.

California’s barriers are getting in the way of tapping into these funds. And politicians and civic leaders, finally, have taken notice.

Because of the recession, the amount of the CalFresh allotments issued in Butte County has increased from $1.7 million a month in July 2007 to nearly $4 million today.

Political food fight

This year, more changes to the CalFresh system are in play and gaining momentum. Three state Assembly bills and one Senate bill are now under consideration in the Legislature, bills that address some of the significant hurdles in the way of signing up for CalFresh.

Assembly Bill 6 aims to eliminate the fingerprint requirement and switch to semiannual reporting. The bill would also help people with receiving a stipend for utility bills through an initiative known as “Heat and Eat.”

“Fingerprinting aims to cut down on fraud, but a lot of people don’t understand [the purpose] of it,” said Alexis Fernandez, a nutrition policy specialist with CFPA. “The system is already a challenge for folks to navigate and extensive compared to other states, and you [already] have to provide a series of verifications for your household and residence.”

As part of this, the USDA also estimates the fingerprint requirement deters enrollment in food stamps by as much as 7 percent.

“There is also mistrust around [fingerprint imaging], particularly for immigrants, and [requiring] every adult in the household [to do so] is a challenge and a step in the wrong direction,” Fernandez said.

Critics of SNAP point to fingerprint imaging as way of deterring fraud, particularly through selling benefits for cash, alcohol or narcotics, or through filing multiple applications in different locations.

But the CFPA has found less than 1 percent of food-stamp investigations nationally are due to multiple-aid fraud. Additionally, the state auditor has determined that the fingerprinting requirement is unnecessary, thought it costs the state about $17 million annually.

Another bill, Assembly Bill 69, would increase access to CalFresh for seniors, allowing counties to establish a county opt-in through the Department of Social Services.

“[The bill] provides a simplified application process,” explained Kerry Birnbach, a nutrition policy advocate with CFPA. “Social Security recipients can indicate their interest in CalFresh eligibility, and the Department of Social Services could then reuse the information seniors gave to the Social Security Administration for retirement benefits. This approach utilizes data sharing to make the process less duplicative.”

The number of people receiving CalFresh (excluding CalWORKs recipients, who are automatically enrolled in the program) has increased from slightly more than 6,000 in 2005-06 to considerably more than 12,000 today.

Birnbach adds that a complicated program for seniors in California, known as “cash out,” also makes the process confusing. Intended for seniors with disabilities, “cash out” supplements seniors’ incomes with about $10 monthly, but makes them ineligible for CalFresh.

A third Assembly bill, AB 828, would end the lifetime ban on CalFresh for former nonviolent drug offenders.

“Fifteen states have already removed this law,” noted Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate for Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento. “Although the numbers are low, about 890 people, it costs a lot to administer and doesn’t recognize people have done their time and instead imposes a lifetime sentence of hunger. It also makes it difficult for their families and for them to successfully reintegrate into the community.”

Last, Senate Bill 43 aims to streamline the minimum work requirements for participation in CalFresh.

Some changes to the system have already occurred.

“Three years ago, we began to see a huge increase in the number of people at food banks because of the economic downturn, and it was an irony because we are in a place that grows food,” said Chet Hewitt, president of Sacramento’s Sierra Health Foundation and a former county welfare director in Alameda County. “One success we had was allowing intercounty transfers, so if you lived in Natomas and moved to West Sacramento you didn’t have to go through the application process again.

“There are more things to be done, but clearly these [new bills] are steps in the right direction,” Hewitt said.

While the number of people categorized as living in poverty in California changed little between 2000 and 2008, the number in Butte County increased by one-third, to more than 20 percent.

Solving the labyrinth

In the meantime, the federal government is also pushing hard for California to make changes.

USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon stresses that changing the system is vital. “By incorporating key changes to their processes, California could reduce burdens on their staff and improve access at the same time, ultimately simplifying the program for everyone,” he explained in an email.

In particular, Concannon highlighted several possible changes, including eliminating fingerprint imaging, converting to simplified reporting, expanding the use of telephone interviews and reducing verification requirements.

Such changes would also help California slash the high costs of administering CalFresh. (California ranks third in the amount it spends on administrative expenses, just above the Virgin Islands.) The federal government funds 50 percent of the administrative costs, with the state and counties picking up 35 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of the remaining costs.

“Some might argue about the costs to change the system,” said CFPA’s Fernandez, “but changing to a semiannual reporting system would generate $75 million in savings over the long term.”

“More important, these improvements will help feed more hungry people who could be our friends, neighbors, or co-workers in this difficult economic climate,” Concannon said.

In its effort to make applying for CalFresh easier, Butte County has adopted a new automated eligibility system that can be accessed at C4Yourself.com, Grams said. Applicants who don’t have computers at home can use those at the county libraries or the county’s two One-Stop Employment Centers in Chico and Oroville.

It’s now possible to apply and obtain food stamps without having to come to the county social-services office, she said. Although fingerprinting remains a requirement, applicants have a year in which to get it done and can receive CalFresh during that time.

As for Monica Turner, all the discussions and legislation around hunger in California are more urgent and closer to home.

“I need a job, but nobody is hiring, even when you know people like I do in phlebotomy,” she said. “I’ll even work for tips.”

In the meantime, she is depending on her parents and CalFresh, and hoping some work-study opportunities at Sacramento City College will come through. Through a friend, she has also helped her son find a one-day-a-week job at a fast-food restaurant.

Even so, the maze that is California’s safety net at a time of shrinking state budgets is still out there.

Said Turner, “I am worried that when I do get my get my degree and CalFresh is up, I am going to have nowhere to go.”