CalFresh Food Assistance: A Bright Spot Amid the Gloom

CalFresh, the nutritional assistance program formerly known in California as Food Stamps, is one of the bright spots for low-income families struggling through the Great Recession and its aftermath. With jobs scarce and the unemployment rate stuck above 12 percent, CalFresh provided 100 percent federally funded food assistance to more than 3.4 million Californians in August 2010, the most recent month for which complete data are available. CalFresh enrollment has increased by an astounding two-thirds (65.6 percent) since August 2007, shortly after the economic downturn began in California. In contrast, CalFresh enrollment increased by a much more modest 18.4 percent in the wake of the 2001 recession and the weak recovery that followed. While CalFresh benefits are modest – providing just $1.50 per person per meal in federal fiscal year 2009 – they are a key part of the nation’s safety net for low-income families who are struggling to put food on the table.

The impact of CalFresh extends beyond the more than 3.4 million Californians enrolled in the program. CalFresh benefits – which totaled $505 million in August 2010 – free up income that low-income households would otherwise spend on food. This allows families to increase their purchases of clothing and other necessities, which in turn boosts economic activity. In fact, economists estimate that every dollar spent on CalFresh benefits increases economic activity in California by $1.70 – a significant “bang for the buck.” In other words, Calfresh benefits not only help struggling families, they also help struggling local economies.

Although CalFresh enrollment has increased rapidly in recent years, California historically has had a low participation rate compared to other states. Policymakers have recently taken steps to increase access to the program. As we pointed out in a report last December, however, both the state and counties can do more to help further boost participation in this vital anti-hunger program.

— Scott Graves