Gov. Jerry Brown in recent years has signed legislation to eliminate the major barriers to food stamp participation in California. New laws ended burdensome and humiliating fingerprint requirements for applicants. California also reduced the number of application renewals required annually to just two, the federal minimum. Despite those improvements, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released earlier this year, nearly half of those eligible for food assistance in California still do not receive it.
As a story in the Los Angeles Times recently reminded us, liberal, blue-state California has the lowest rate of food stamp participation in the country, lower than Texas, lower than Mississippi, lower than Alabama. The federal program to feed the poor, officially known as SNAP at the national level, is called CalFresh in California. Advocates for the poor blame the state’s low participation rate on a still overly complex application process, poor customer service at the county level, and antiquated and incompatible county computer systems.
The Affordable Care Act offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the state to modernize food assistance and add millions of needy people to the CalFresh rolls. As state health officials implement the Affordable Care Act, food policy advocates are urging them to consider integrating CalFresh into those processes as well.
In most cases, people newly eligible for medical coverage under the Affordable Care Act will also be eligible for CalFresh. Applications for both programs ask the same questions. Can they be integrated? When someone signs up for health care, can they also automatically sign up for and become eligible for food assistance? Can updates and renewals be transferred between both programs?
Food policy advocates want the state to evaluate all CalFresh modernization proposals for how they integrate with health care and specifically Medi-Cal. The federal government is encouraging such integration and helping to finance it in some cases. Some caution is necessary here. Health care is too important. In seeking to integrate CalFresh with the Affordable Care Act, state officials can’t afford to lose the primary focus - health care. Still, checking a box that sends the health care applicant’s paperwork to the CalFresh program ought to be doable.
More than 4 million low-income Californians receive food assistance now, but another 4 million who are eligible do not. That means too many state residents go hungry or rely on food banks to feed their families when they don’t have to. Because CalFresh is paid for entirely with federal dollars, it also means California residents miss out on an estimated $4.7 billion in federal help every year, money that generates another $8.3 billion in economic activity for grocers, farmers and others who work or do business with them. California can and should do better.