Patt Morrison for July 25, 2011

As need grows, looming fed budget cuts threaten California food stamp program

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A federal food stamps card that is used to purchase food.

Today about 1 in 10 Californians receive food stamp benefits from the state branch of the newly-renamed food stamp program. Even more surprisingly, only 50 percent of those eligible for food stamps currently participate in the program in California.

The Food Stamp Program (FSP), re-branded nationally last year as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) and as CalFresh locally, has been a conspicuous part of the nation’s social culture since the pilot project was successfully launched in 1939. For some Americans, the idea of food stamps is synonymous with “welfare,” while for others, it is a lifeline that significantly helps in the battle to make ends meet.

Once distributed in recognizable paper stamps or colored coupons, food benefits now come loaded onto electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, and are growing more prevalent as millions struggle to recover from the “Great Recession.”

In fact, the number of Americans receiving help from SNAP—today about 45 million—has risen by 69 percent since the beginning of 2007. Every state has seen increases in its food assistance program participation rates – including California, where food stamp recipients now number 3,727,005. That's up from around 2 million just four years ago. Today about 1 in 10 Californians receive food stamp benefits.

But in the Golden state, only about half of those eligible for CalFresh benefits currently participate in the program—as compared with the higher national average of 66 percent – resulting in the 2nd lowest food stamp rate in the nation, after Wyoming. The low figure has puzzled many who see rampant hunger in California’s largest urban areas, such as Los Angeles County, where an estimated 1.7 million residents were at risk of going hungry in 2009.

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, observed on Monday's Patt Morrison Show that recipients have long felt embarrassed about their dependence on food stamps, noting that “historically there has been stigma attached to using that benefit.” Because of this self-consciousness, some choose to scrape by without assistance even though they are eligible.

Listener John, calling from Norwalk, said that he was reluctant to apply for CalFresh benefits because he felt wounded by his incapacity to provide enough for his family, and that receiving food stamps would be a confirmation of this failure. “…You lose a little bit of your confidence in your abilities…as the breadwinner of the family,” he said, speaking of the personal shame that many feel when they realize that they cannot fulfill traditional parental roles.

“It has become a program which helps working families,” affirmed Ross.

Some who come from immigrant families or are themselves foreign-born are reluctant to apply for CalFresh benefits because they worry about deportation or retributive delays of their green card applications if they become “public charges.” These worries are ill-founded, however, since no penalties are given for participation in the program and because immigrants who have been legally in the U.S. for 5 years are food stamp-eligible.

The recently unemployed are also reluctant to apply for CalFresh benefits, and contribute to the state’s low participation rate. With the unemployment rate having risen from 5.2 to almost 12 percent since the recession began, this group contains many people who never thought they would require assistance, noted Philip Browning, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

“We’re finding many individuals who look just like you and I do, who had good jobs—they worked in the banking industry, or real estate or construction—and they never though they would have to apply for any public assistance,” Browning said.

He encouraged those in need to lose their embarrassment, adding that “there are many people on your block who have probably benefitted from and have applied for food stamps.”

The food stamps program in California was renamed CalFresh to remove some of its old stigma, and has adopted new measures to make the application more convenient, Browning explained. One can know apply for assistance on the CalFresh website or by telephone to avoid taking time off of work and traveling to the CalFresh offices. May has also been declared “CalFresh Awareness Month,” and a new publicity campaign has been launched to promote the program at farmers markets, schools, food pantries and other locations.

CalFresh provides food benefits to households earning less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and its average participating family possesses only $101 worth of savings or valuables. The typical monthly payment is about $133 per month, while individuals with no income may receive up to $200 monthly. About 50 percent of recipients are children. Eight percent are seniors.

The CalFresh income requirements mean that many who are hungry are ineligible for federal food assistance. “Map the Meal Gap,” a study published by the national food bank network Feeding America, found that about 6 million Californians were “food insecure” in 2009, or unable to regularly provide enough nutritious food for themselves or their families. Of those 6 million, more than half failed to qualify for food stamps, and about a third didn’t meet the standards for other programs, such as reduced-price meals for schoolchildren.

Republicans in the House recently wrote budget outline for 2012 in which they proposed cutting 1/5th of the food stamps program’s funding by 2015, adding to the worries of many California counties receiving millions of dollars less than what they need to adequately administer and staff their branches of the program.

Whether the iconic program will take a financial beating once a debt deal is finally hammered out by Congress remains to be seen.

Guests:

Jean Ross, executive director, California Budget Project

Philip Browning, director, Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services


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