Looming Cut to CalFresh Will Slash Households’ Food Budgets, Drain Millions of Dollars From California Economy

This Friday, November 1, all Californians who receive food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known in California as CalFresh) will see a significant drop in their already-modest benefits. Benefits will decline by 7 percent on average, or about $10 per person per month. The maximum monthly food benefit for a family of four, for example, will be cut by $36.

With the poverty rate in California still one-third above the pre-recession level, and many counties still struggling with double-digit unemployment, the deep cuts to households’ food budgets come at a terrible time.

By the Numbers…

Here’s a rundown — by the numbers — of what the SNAP/CalFresh cuts will mean for California:

  • 4.2 million — The number of CalFresh recipients in California who will be affected by the cut.
  • 67 percent — The share of CalFresh households affected by the cut that include children.
  • $1.40 — The average CalFresh benefit per person, per meal after the cut.
  • 21 — The number of meals lost in the course of a month for a family of four.
  • $457 million — The federal dollars that will be lost in California due to SNAP benefit cuts in the coming federal fiscal year. The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP/CalFresh benefits for households.
  • 8 in 10 — Share of the benefit dollars lost in California that would have gone to households with children.
  • $1.79 — The boost to the economy provided by every additional dollar spent on SNAP benefits, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Deeper Cuts to Food Assistance Could Be on the Way

The sudden reduction in SNAP/CalFresh benefits is occurring because an increase provided in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — intended to spur economic growth and prevent hunger in low-income households — expires at the end of October. The higher benefit level was originally supposed to stay in place until annual inflation adjustments caught up, softening the transition for low-income households, but Congress later accelerated the sunset date.

Unfortunately, there is no sign that Congressional leaders plan to halt the SNAP benefit cut. In fact, when House and Senate members meet today to begin formal negotiations on the federal Farm Bill, they will be debating whether to make even deeper cuts to SNAP. The House recently passed legislation that would cut $39 billion from the program over the next decade, potentially eliminating assistance for nearly 4 million people nationwide in the first year alone. Even the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill would cut $4.1 billion from the program over the next 10 years.

In focusing on whether and how much to cut SNAP benefits, the debate in Congress ignores mounting evidence that SNAP is one of the most effective federal programs for fighting poverty and shielding children from the effects of hunger. According to the USDA, the ARRA increase in SNAP benefits cut the number of “food insecure” households in which one or more persons had to skip meals or otherwise eat less — by half a million nationwide in 2009. In addition, recent research demonstrates that early childhood access to food assistance is associated with significantly better outcomes in terms of health, educational attainment, earnings, and self-sufficiency in adulthood.

The Case for Investing in — Rather Than Cutting — SNAP

What if, instead of debating how much to cut SNAP, policymakers were seeking ways to make SNAP dollars go even further toward fighting hunger, improving health, and stimulating local economies? Instead of undermining a program that was one of the strongest elements of the nation’s response to the recent recession, we could be deploying proven strategies to expand SNAP’s reach. For example, we could be ensuring that children get enough to eat when school’s out by providing a summertime benefit increase to families with kids, an innovation that has been shown to significantly increase children’s food security in preliminary studies. Or we could be encouraging healthy food choices by offering incentives for SNAP/CalFresh participants to buy nutritious foods (such as fruits and vegetables) and expanding capacity for the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards at farmers’ markets.

Last year, SNAP lifted more Americans out of poverty than in any other year on record. At a time when many households in California and across the nation are still struggling to make ends meet, such a program is not just worth preserving — it’s worth strengthening.

— Hope Richardson