Food Assistance: A Proven Tool for Reducing Hunger and Poverty

Advocates from around the state are coming to Sacramento this week to raise awareness of hunger in California. On Wednesday, Hunger Action Day, a select committee will examine how inadequate nutrition can be detrimental to children’s development and discuss policies to prevent hunger early in life.

This issue is particularly timely given the sharp increase in recent years in the number of people facing hunger or the threat of hunger. The share of US households considered “food insecure” — unable to regularly afford nutritionally adequate meals — reached an all-time high in the wake of the Great Recession as millions of workers lost their jobs and struggled to feed their families on reduced incomes. Food insecurity increased in nearly every state during the downturn, but California saw the fourth-largest jump, and between 2010 and 2012, an average of nearly one in six of the state’s households faced hunger or the threat of hunger. An astounding 25 percent of California’s children lived in households that were unable to afford sufficient food at some point in 2010, up from 17 percent of children in 2006.

SNAP’s History of Success

The recent rise in food insecurity is cause for concern, but our nation’s past efforts to reduce hunger show that it’s possible to reverse this trend. In the 1960s, before food assistance was widely available, it was common for children in impoverished communities to show signs of severe malnourishment — such as distended bellies or wasting — that today are typically associated with extreme poverty in developing nations. In fact, just two generations ago, some infants born to very-low-income families in the US would die of hunger. Today such tragedies are rare in our nation thanks to the creation and expansion of food assistance programs. The nation’s largest program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as CalFresh in California) can be credited with largely eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in the US.

Research shows that SNAP not only reduces hunger, but also it functions like an immunization, protecting young children from illness. It also cuts children’s odds of being underweight and at risk of developmental delays. And SNAP’s benefits appear to last into adulthood. A recent academic paper found that children from disadvantaged families who had access to food assistance early in life were significantly less likely to suffer from serious, chronic health conditions as adults. Furthermore, the girls in these families were better able to support themselves as adults: they generally achieved higher levels of education, had higher earnings, and were less likely to need public assistance as adults.

Food assistance also is one of the most powerful tools for reducing poverty. By boosting families’ food budgets and thus freeing up income for other necessities, SNAP lifted 4.7 million people nationwide — including 2.1 million children — above the poverty line in 2011. CalFresh kept nearly 800,000 Californians out of poverty that year, including 380,000 children — effectively cutting the child poverty rate by about 4 percentage points.

How California Can Build on SNAP’s Success

California’s policymakers can reduce hunger and poverty even more by expanding food assistance to additional families. Currently, California ties with Wyoming for the lowest SNAP participation rate. Estimates suggest that 3.2 million Californians are eligible for the program but are not enrolled. If every eligible Californian participated, millions of state residents would be better able to afford sufficient food and many would be lifted out of poverty. What’s more, because CalFresh is 100-percent federally funded, maximizing program participation would draw an estimated $3.5 billion in additional federal food assistance benefits into the state, providing a significant boost to California’s economy as well as its families.

State policymakers should be commended for taking a number of important steps in recent years to boost participation in CalFresh, but there are additional actions they could take to further increase enrollment. For example, California could establish a stakeholder advisory committee to identify and recommend effective strategies to improve statewide CalFresh participation, service, and performance.

California could also expand so-called “categorical eligibility,” a simplified enrollment process intended to boost participation in CalFresh. Legislation signed into law last year established categorical eligibility for households with individuals enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for low-income Californians. Specifically, this legislation enables households who have a connection to Medi-Cal and whose gross incomes somewhat exceed the CalFresh eligibility requirement — falling between 130 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line — to qualify for CalFresh as long as they meet the program’s net income test, meaning that their incomes, after subtracting certain expenses such as child care, remain at or below the poverty line. (For a family of three, 130 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line corresponds to an annual income of between about $24,000 and $38,000.) As a next step, the Legislature could approve the Governor’s recent proposal, included in his revised budget, to broaden categorical eligibility to all households — not just those with a connection to Medi-Cal — whose incomes meet these requirements. This proposal would remove a significant barrier to CalFresh enrollment primarily for low-income working families who spend much of their incomes on necessities like child care and housing and thus have little left over for food.

In addition to boosting CalFresh participation, policymakers could take action to prevent a pending reduction in food assistance benefits. Recent changes in federal law imposed restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which boost SNAP benefits for families who also participate in a federal energy assistance program. Absent state action, these restrictions are expected to result in a significant loss of CalFresh benefits — $62 in federal funds per month, on average, for hundreds of thousands of California households. (To put this cut in perspective, the average CalFresh household receives just $200 of food assistance per month.) California policymakers could prevent this substantial cut by adopting the Governor’s recent budget proposal to increase state funding for energy assistance by the amount needed to comply with the new federal requirements. While implementing this proposal would cost the state $10 million, it would prevent California from losing $300 million in federal funds — a substantial bang for the buck.

Why This Matters Now

Boosting participation in food assistance programs is especially critical now given California’s severe drought, which is expected to cause food prices to rise, making it harder for low-income Californians to feed their families. Research suggests that a mere $10 increase in weekly food costs can significantly boost the share of households facing hunger of the threat of hunger.

Moreover, the emergency food providers that many families turn to when they can’t afford enough to eat are anticipating significant challenges ahead. If the drought causes food supplies to drop, food banks expect that they’ll run out of food before serving all of their clients, particularly if demand for their services increases due to higher food prices. Already many food banks have reported increased demand for assistance due to recent cuts to SNAP benefits.

Increasing CalFresh participation has always been a policy win-win given its potential to substantially reduce hunger and poverty while boosting the state’s economy. But with food prices likely to rise in the near future, the case for taking prompt action has never been stronger.

— Alissa Anderson