A Better Way to Fight Hunger in California

State Bill Aims to Streamline System and Improve Access to Programs

Araceli Ruano and Rebecca Friendly discuss a bill making its way through the state legislature that could help more low-income Californians receive the benefits they need.

A bill currently on Gov. Jerry Brown's (D-CA) desk would reform food stamp programs in the state to help more people access benefits. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
A bill currently on Gov. Jerry Brown's (D-CA) desk would reform food stamp programs in the state to help more people access benefits. (AP/Paul Sakuma)

California is typically at the forefront when it comes to progressive policies, but it now finds itself far behind the rest of the country in administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, known as CalFresh in California. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is often cited as the first line of defense against hunger by allowing needy households to purchase food at grocery retailers through Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

Currently, California has an overly complicated application and quarterly reporting system for Calfresh recipients that is burdensome to all involved and likely the cause of the low participation rates in the state. Participation rates in the program are extremely low with only about 50 percent of eligible Californians enrolled. These rates make California second to last among states on measures of program participation. A 100 percent participation rate of eligible households as seen in other states could mean an additional $4.9 billion in federal nutrition benefits for needy Californians.

California is the only state in the nation that does not use a simplified or semiannual reporting system despite the fact that the Department of Agriculture supports and encourages it because it decreases burdens for clients, reduces administrative workload, and improves accuracy. Similarly, California is one of only three states and a few localities that require participating households to complete a fingerprint image when applying for CalFresh. Until a few weeks ago, there were four states requiring finger print images for SNAP applicants, but Texas decided to eliminate the practice altogether.

California, therefore, now finds itself using antiquated practices and falling behind the curve on SNAP.

The California legislature recognizes that during the current climate of tight budgets and high levels of unemployment, California families are experiencing great need. In fact, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that California’s poverty rate rose for the fourth consecutive year. Referring to census data, the article also showed that 16.3 percent of Californians had incomes below the federal poverty line or $22,113 for a family of four in 2010.

We now have the opportunity to help low-income families increase their access to food and enable better eating habits. California’s Assembly Bill 6, or AB 6, which passed both houses of Congress and now sits on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, is an innovative piece of legislation aimed at relieving hunger in the neediest sectors of California by increasing the efficiency of existing federally funded programs.

In essence, this bill strives to ensure that people do not go hungry because of unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy and that instead they receive all benefits to which they are entitled. AB 6, written by assembly member Felipe Fuentes (D), would increase access to and participation in CalFresh by reducing costs and streamlining the application process. AB 6 also addresses another federally funded program, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, known as CalWORKs, though to a lesser extent. CalWORKs provides temporary financial assistance and employment services to eligible needy California families and oftentimes CalWORKS families can qualify for an array of other programs including CalFresh.

AB 6 will require three major changes.

First, AB 6 will require CalFresh and CalWORKs to change from quarterly reporting systems to semiannual reporting systems. The quarterly reporting system in California is costly and straining on both the state and on needy Californians. A simplified reporting system would allow California to reduce the information that SNAP recipients must provide to the state to maintain their eligibility and benefits during their certification period. Most states have issued a 12-month certification period with semiannual reporting. States with simplified reporting systems reduce administrative workloads involved in tracing and responding to changes during a certification period. Simultaneously, SNAP recipients benefit because they report changes less frequently. The only instance in which SNAP recipients are required to report during the semiannual period is if their gross monthly income exceeds the SNAP eligibility.

Second, AB 6 would eliminate the Statewide Finger Imaging System, or SFIS, for all CalFresh households. Under Calfresh all adult members of a benefiting household must go to an office to be fingerprinted. In other states, however, only one adult family member is required to visit an office if at all. The Department of Agriculture found that in general finger imaging has a negative impact on program participation, so it decided to bar any additional states from implementing this practice. States using SFIS have an average of 7 percent lower program participation rates than similar states that do not use this system. SFIS’s original intent to combat duplicate aid fraud was well intentioned, but studies find the system to be economically unjustified at $17 million a year, and to be a largely ineffective and redundant fraud detection tool.

Finally, AB 6 incorporates a “heat and eat” initiative that would provide CalFresh households with a nominal energy assistance benefit through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, qualifying them to receive the Standard Utility Allowance, or SUA. A household’s CalFresh benefits are based on a number of factors including income and housing and child care deductions. A utility allowance based on the types of utilities for which a household is responsible can be used as part of a household’s housing deductions for CalFresh. Under the provisions set forth by AB 6, all CalFresh households would automatically use the SUA as a component of their benefit calculations without verification of their utility expenses. This initiative would allow households who had not previously claimed the SUA to claim higher shelter costs, likely qualifying them for the excess shelter deductions and thereby increasing benefits for some households and removing verification burdens for others.

Heat and eat initiatives are used in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Wisconsin. They are seen as a way of maximizing federal nutrition benefits while mitigating the effects of high housing and utility costs. This heat and eat provision would be the first initiative of its kind in California.

One of the most appealing aspects of AB 6 is that it is expected to generate a substantial economic effect. The Department of Agriculture has shown that every dollar in SNAP expenditures generates $1.79 in economic activity. Households that receive CalFresh benefits are able to redistribute some of their income that normally would only be used to purchase food. Consequently, part of this redistributed income can be spent on taxable goods, which in turn generate revenue for the state and counties.

In California it is estimated that through additional nutrition benefits, AB 6 will have the potential to benefit all Californians through more than $8.7 billion in associated economic activity.

The final stretch for this bill is in sight as it waits for Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Opportunities to improve nutrition for low-income Californians are far and few between given the current economic situation. AB 6 grants California the opportunity to use federal funds to their full capacity while lifting other statewide pressures. California must assume its role in combating America’s hunger and obesity problems by helping to ensure food security among low-income Californians in an efficient and sustainable manner.

Araceli Ruano is Senior Vice President and Director of the California Office and Rebecca Friendly is the Special Assistant for the California Office.

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Araceli Ruano

Senior Fellow

Rebecca Friendly

Special Assistant