By Elaine Korry
Thousands of Californians could lose food stamp benefits under a plan approved by congressional Republicans last week cutting the federal program by approximately $40 billion over ten years. California already has the lowest food stamp participation rate in the nation. Advocates for the poor are alarmed, and they say the GOP plan would hurt veterans and former foster youth, among others.
An estimated four million Californians receive food assistance through a state-administered program called CalFresh. The bill, which passed by a 217-210 margin, would protect benefits for the poorest households with children (who comprise about 80 percent of food stamp recipients in California), but restrict benefits for unemployed childless adults after three months.
GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents a district stretching from Truckee to the Sequoia National Forest, says he voted on behalf of every California household that pays $720 a year in taxes to support CalFresh. “I think they’ve got a right to ask in return that those who are on the program make a good faith effort to get off it, and that’s what this bill does,” he said.
More than 360,000 out-of-work Californians could lose CalFresh benefits, unless they enroll in vocational courses or a county jobs program. “The bill restores a requirement that able-bodied adults work, or look for work, or at least be training for work in order to receive this assistance,” said McClintock.
But there’s just one catch, according to Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Our counties and our state administrators all say that they don't have the capacity to absorb those individuals into a job search and a job training program,” she said.
The House GOP cuts could also hurt one vulnerable group state lawmakers have been actively trying to help: jobless veterans. Bartholow says the House plan reverses a newly passed state law giving special benefits to returning vets. “The bill passed by the House of Representatives would put that policy in jeopardy,” said Bartholow.
The federal government pays for food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Bartholow believes that instead of eliminating people from the food stamp rolls, California should be working to enroll more of the estimated 4 million residents who are eligible for but do not receive food assistance. Because of that low participation rate, California leaves about $4.7 billion in federal money earmarked for SNAP on the table each year.
According to Bartholow, past Republican governors oversaw tough requirements that helped keep the state’s SNAP participation rate low. “We were one of the first states to have a finger image requirement for the program,” said Bartholow. “We were one of the last states to allow for phone interviews when people couldn't come into the office, and we were the last state to change reporting requirements for income and assets from quarterly to semiannually.”
Some of those barriers to enrollment have been lifted through legislation signed by Gov. Brown, but according to a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture survey earlier this year, approximately one-half of Californians entitled to federal nutrition assistance do not receive it.
All California’s Democratic representatives voted against the bill. Republican representatives Gary Miller and David Valadao also voted no.