CalFresh Food Assistance: Another ARRA Success Story

Here’s another piece of good news about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA): The ARRA reduced the number of low-income US households who reported hunger or the threat of hunger in 2009, even as the nation’s unemployment rate surged during the most severe economic downturn in the post-World War II era. This finding comes from a rigorous analysis by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The study assessed the impact of the ARRA’s nutritional assistance provisions, including a 13.6 percent boost to food benefits provided by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps and called CalFresh in California.

The study concluded that the ARRA not only helped to boost both SNAP enrollment and families’ food spending, but also “improved food security among low-income households during a period of tough economic conditions.” Specifically, 530,000 fewer low-income households experienced hunger or the threat of hunger in 2009 than would have been the case without the ARRA, according to the report. Further underscoring the ARRA’s positive impact on food security, the researchers found that households who were ineligible for SNAP benefits because their incomes were slightly too high did not fare as well: “Food spending increased by a smaller amount and food security did not improve” for these families, the researchers concluded.

Millions of Californians facing prolonged joblessness and reduced incomes during the painfully slow economic recovery have benefited from the ARRA’s improvements to food assistance. As CBP Executive Director Jean Ross noted yesterday on KPCC, the number of CalFresh recipients – most of whom are children – has increased steadily since California employment peaked in 2007, rising by 82 percent from just over 2 million in July 2007 to 3.7 million in May 2011. In the aggregate, CalFresh families receive more than $500 million per month in 100 percent federally funded food benefits, all of which is spent at grocery stores throughout the state, thereby boosting local economies. Certainly, CalFresh has room for improvement, as we’ve pointed out before. But for now, as the state struggles to recover from the Great Recession, it’s hard to argue with success.

—Scott Graves