Reforming CalFresh

Millions of low-income Californians are missing out on CalFresh — a critical resource for families who are struggling with hunger.

Millions of Californians are unable to afford all the food they need to live healthy lives. CalFresh, known nationally as SNAP and commonly as food stamps, is our state’s first line of defense against hunger. Funded through the Farm Bill, it supports 4.2 million Californians with an average monthly benefit of $300 per household.

For people with a limited income, CalFresh provides stability — it is a vital resource in being able to purchase food for themselves and their families. In our service area of San Francisco and Marin, a combined 60,000 people rely on CalFresh as a supplement to their food budgets. Most households that receive CalFresh include children and elderly family members — our most vulnerable low-income neighbors.

After an application process that considers income, assets and overall need, counties provide an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to qualified recipients — allowing people to purchase food from grocery stores and other food retailers that accept EBT dollars. This allows families to supplement the food they are able to purchase themselves, or that they may be receiving from their neighborhood food pantry. This gives families choice and agency around how they feed themselves and their families.

The problem is, millions of Californians who qualify for the program are not receiving benefits. In fact, California is the worst performing state when it comes to enrolling eligible people.

Less than 60% of eligible Californians are receiving benefits, compared to some of the best performing states like Oregon and Washington where close to 100% of eligible people are enrolled. In addition to very low enrollment in California, we have one of the highest administrative costs per case — making our program very expensive to operate.

In San Francisco and Marin, an estimated 56,000 people may be eligible for CalFresh but are not enrolled.

In other words, only about 50% of all eligible residents of San Francisco and Marin are receiving CalFresh.

This means thousands of families are continuing to struggle with hunger when they could be receiving vital support.

Improving CalFresh benefits everyone

In addition to providing stability for families, the use of CalFresh dollars spurs the local economy. In San Francisco and Marin alone, we are missing out on over $150 million dollars of local economic activity every year. And as a state, California is missing out on an estimated $8.7 billion dollars of economic activity per year that would be created if everyone eligible for CalFresh received benefits.

CalFresh also provides powerful leverage for local governments, because the CalFresh dollars that people receive on their EBT cards are paid for entirely by the federal government, while only a small fraction of the administrative costs are paid for through local funding. In San Francisco, the city only pays 15%, or $3.6 million per year for the administrative costs of operating the CalFresh program. In other words, a very small local investment can yield large economic benefits for our community. More precisely, we know that a $1 investment from the City generates $48 in economic activity.

But, why is participation so low? For many years, California had policies

in place that restricted eligibility. Most of those policies have been eliminated, but a major issue remains. Unlike most other states, California has a county operated program, which means that instead of having one state agency that manages the program, we have 58 small agencies that all operate their programs in slightly different ways. Having inconsistent policies and procedures in each county creates confusion for CalFresh recipients and inefficiencies for the program as a whole. We are working to change this so that all Californians can secure the resources they need to buy food.

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