Capitol Alert

Despite high poverty, Californians’ food aid use is low

April Garr cleans apples after returning from the store. She and her husband Brian Garr, left, used food stamps to supplement their income in 2010 after Brian lost his job as a mechanical engineer in Rancho Cordova after his employer moved operations to Southern California.
April Garr cleans apples after returning from the store. She and her husband Brian Garr, left, used food stamps to supplement their income in 2010 after Brian lost his job as a mechanical engineer in Rancho Cordova after his employer moved operations to Southern California. aalfaro@sacbee.com

Nearly a quarter of California’s 38 million residents are living in poverty by a new Census Bureau method of calculating economic well-being – by far the nation’s highest rate.

But the 23.8 percent of Californians who are impoverished – due largely to the state’s very high costs of housing and other necessities – have one of the nation’s lowest rates of using federal food assistance benefits, according to another Census Bureau report and data from federal and state agencies.

That aid used to be called “food stamps” but has been renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and California dubs it CalFresh.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, says that just over 2 million California households are participating in the program, a number that comports with data from the state Department of Social Services.

That translates into about 4.5 million persons whose families purchase food with electronically loaded cards, similar to credit or bank ATM cards, from grocery stores.

The number of participants in California is the highest of any state, but the rate of utilization is one of the lowest.

The USDA says that just 63 percent of eligible Californians were obtaining CalFresh benefits in 2012, the latest year for its state-to-state comparison. The only state with a lower rate was Wyoming – which has a booming petroleum sector and one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. Utilization ranged as high as nearly 100 percent in three states, including neighboring Oregon.

Among California’s working poor, just 49 percent of those eligible received CalFresh benefits in 2012, the nation’s lowest rate.

Were eligible Californians using CalFresh at the national rate of 83 percent, it would raise the state’s total from 4.5 million beneficiaries to just under 6 million and pump another $200 million a year into food purchases by the poor.

The Census Bureau’s new report on SNAP, which was released Tuesday, doesn’t use the hard data that state and USDA reports employ, but rather bases its numbers on the American Community Survey, which asks samples of Americans about a wide variety of issues.

The Census Bureau report says that in 2013, 1.2 million California households reported they used SNAP (CalFresh) benefits, or 9.4 percent of all households in the state, numbers that are considerably lower than the state and USDA totals.

Nevertheless, the Census Bureau report also ranks California relatively low in utilization, with just six other states lower, including Wyoming at 5.9 percent. Oregon also tops the Census Bureau’s rankings at 19.8 percent, more than twice as high as California.

Ryan Woolsey, who analyzes CalFresh data for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, says the discrepancy between the hard data and the Census Bureau survey is a well-known syndrome when it comes to health and social benefit programs.

Those who have studied “underreporting,” as it’s called, attribute the gaps to faulty memories, misunderstandings and a reluctance to talk to surveyors about personal finances when they involve public benefits.

California’s state and local social service agencies have taken several steps in recent years to increase the number of eligible residents who avail themselves of CalFresh benefits, but as the latest data show, the state still is lagging the rest of the nation.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter

@WaltersBee.

  Comments