State of Hunger
The battle against food scarcity in California.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
A decade ago, Tammy Jaime lost everything to drugs. She and her husband spent through their savings, lost their home and car, and ended up in the rural northern California mountains, begging for food for their children.
Jaime won her battle against drugs, but finds she’s still struggling to feed her kids. These days, Jaime, 39, is sober, enrolled in college, and working part-time for Cisco Headstart, where she earns $12 an hour. It’s the most money she has ever made, well above minimum wage. But routinely, as the month draws to a close, she and her husband run out of funds, in part because of family medical bills.
“We live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Jaime. “We don’t eat out very much. We don’t have TV. Next week is payday. But then, you know what, my check is gone the next day because it’s all lined up for bills.”
She’s part of a growing demographic. More than four years into the worst financial, housing and unemployment crisis to hit the country since the Great Depression, America’s hunger numbers continue to climb.
About 46 million people in the U.S. are enrolled in food-stamp programs; they receive benefits that average $134 per month per individual, and $284 per household. Millions more are income qualified for food stamps, but aren’t enrolled. Still additional millions don’t qualify for food stamps, but the part-time, low-wage work they can find doesn’t pay enough to cover all their bills. Like Jaime, they juggle expenses and frequently end up with insufficient money to buy enough food for themselves and their children.
While California doesn’t have the highest rate of poverty or hunger in the country, its raw hunger and food insecurity numbers are stunning. Our state, with the largest population in the country, has the second highest number of food-stamp enrollees (Texas holds the dubious distinction of coming in first), with over 3.8 million residents, including 1.4 million children, in the CalFresh program.
But California would have far more food-stamp recipients if it did a better job at reaching out to those poor enough to qualify for the federally funded program. While some states successfully enroll upwards of 90 percent of qualified households, more than half of all Californians who should be covered remain outside the food-stamp safety net.
These men, women and children are reliant either on the largesse of local charities, churches and food pantries; or they are simply missing meals.
“California’s about the bottom of the barrel,” says Ken Hecht, executive director of California Food Policy Advocates. The nonprofit’s 2010 report, Lost Dollars, Empty Plates, concluded that about 3.6 million Californians who qualify for food stamps are not enrolled – sacrificing federally funded benefits worth more than $4.8 billion annually. Since food stamp expenditures circulate rapidly through the economy, the CFPA researchers calculated the total cost of these unclaimed benefits to the California economy at a staggering $8.7 billion.
Of the 58 counties in California, Monterey ranks 46th in terms of access versus eligibility for the food-stamp program. Only 34,109 county residents are enrolled in the food-stamp program – just over a third of the 94,172 who qualify based on their income, according to 2010 data from the CFPA.
Enrollment has soared in recent years, but not fast enough to keep pace with growing numbers of eligible individuals. From 2008 to 2010, almost 30,000 more people in Monterey County became eligible for food stamps, CFPA reports, but only two-thirds of them signed up.
If Monterey County had full participation in the food-stamp program, it could generate an additional $143 million in economic activity.
California, meet your hungry
Hunger in 21st century America transcends stereotypes: It might be portrayed by a food line snaking through a poor neighborhood in a dilapidated inner city, an image redolent of Great Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange.
But at this point it’s just as likely to be embodied by somebody as middle-class as Graciela R., who lives in the hardscrabble L.A. suburb of Sylmar. The 50-year-old mother of two used to scrape by with jobs in laundromats, but she has been unemployed since the start of the recession.
She and her husband once brought in nearly $2,000 a month, but today they squeak by on the $700 a month that her husband earns repairing car windows.
How much money does she have? “The three dollars in my purse,” she answers in Spanish. And laughs, as if to say, “What can you do?”
Yet, for all of the “food insecurity” in California – households lacking assured access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle – actual hunger would be far more extensive without government programs to tackle the problem. The hungry would also lose out if those programs were replaced by block grants: giving states chunks of federal cash to feed the poor however they deem fit, as an increasing number of Republican politicians are advocating.
Food stamps are the one part of the social safety net that, for those enrolled, still works really well. Simply put, the program keeps people from going hungry. It’s available to all legal residents at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (though individual states can determine what value of assets, such as cars, factor into that formula).
It is counter-cyclical, meaning the availability and use of food-stamp benefits increases during recessions. The federal government currently bankrolls the program to the tune of approximately $65 billion per year – which can help keep local economies afloat during downtimes.
And it is flexible enough to deal with the needs of individuals and families in a multitude of ways. The benefits are given to clients via the EBT card, which means that once the messiness of enrollment is over, the delivery of services is actually pretty efficient. Unlike the old paper vouchers, modern EBT benefits are hard to sell, thus reducing black markets and making sure the benefits get spent properly on food – especially for children.
That’s one reason GOP attacks against food stamps in recent months – by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on the presidential campaign trail, and by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who proposed replacing food stamps with capped block grants – haven’t resonated all that well.
People in America don’t like welfare programs in the abstract, but when it comes to specifics, food stamps and other nutritional programs enjoy pretty high levels of public support. Polling by the Food Research and Action Center shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe, “Those who are unable to earn enough money for food should be helped by others.” In 2003, the Alliance to End Hunger found that seven in 10 voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who proposed cuts to the school-lunch program, and 63 percent of voters would be less likely to vote for a politician who proposed cutting food stamps.
But while there are many success stories associated with the country’s federal anti-hunger programs, the states responsible for administering these benefits vary tremendously in how they enroll people, and how they access the federal dollars. On this front, the Golden State does very badly.
As stated earlier, only about half of eligible Californians receive food-stamp benefits. In many counties, including Monterey, that number is below 50 percent.
Analysts blame the low enrollment on an array of factors. Until a recent reform, Assembly Bill 6, kicked in this Jan. 1, California was one of only three states to fingerprint food-stamp applicants, placing both a stigma and a fear of law enforcement (or immigration authorities) in the way of access.
California legislators changed that, in a rare display of bipartisanship in Sacramento, after years of prodding by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials responsible for administering food stamps under President Barack Obama. Both in D.C. and at the department’s regional offices in Oakland, USDA personnel held numerous meetings with state officials, sent out letters to key legislators, and otherwise made it clear that they wanted to see reform.
At the same time, AB 6 set in place a timeline for ending, over the next two years, several other bureaucratic obstacles to easy enrollment. Currently, California mandates that recipients re-submit eligibility documents four times a year, subjecting them to a cumbersome means test that frequently deters applicants. AB 6 reduces the re-applications to twice a year. Also, until Jan. 1, the state insisted that applicants apply in person at food-stamp offices, which produces a strong disincentive for the working poor to apply. After all, if applying means turning up during work hours and losing hourly wages, or even forfeiting a job, why bother applying? AB 6 allows for telephone interviews and online applications.
The federal Affordable Care Act also gives the newly created state health insurance exchange boards the option of setting up systems that would automatically give food-stamp benefits to applicants who successfully enroll in Medicaid. California’s board is likely to go for this option. The rationale, here, is that a dollar spent on helping people eat well saves many dollars in health costs down the road.
Finally, following passage of AB 69, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, California will also soon allow low-income seniors to access food stamps more easily when they enroll in Social Security. That’s an attempt to end a pattern of extraordinarily low CalFresh participation among the elderly.
Hunger advocates hope the effect of this series of changes will be dramatically increased enrollment levels in CalFresh over the next few years, and a corresponding decrease in food insecurity in California.
Sasha Abramsky is author of Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of Hunger in America and How to Fix it. He’s currently working on an anti-poverty project funded by the Open Society Foundation’s Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation. audio from his interviews can be found at www.thevoicesofpoverty.org