During the pandemic, some Californians have found themselves and their families dealing with food insecurity.
Despite the long wait times for benefits at the start of the pandemic, an estimated 500,000 income-eligible families leave the CalFresh program every year, according to a new study from the California Policy Lab.
While half of the households that leave the program will re-enroll again within two years, many other households may never come back “due to how complicated and burdensome it is to remain in the program,” California Policy Lab research fellow and UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Matt Unrath said.
Those who leave the program are losing out anywhere between $200 to $500 a month, depending on their household size, leaving a valuable asset behind.
Matt Unrath joined CapRadio’s Mike Hagerty to explain how families across the state are pushed off the CalFresh program due to bureaucracy and paperwork.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On how pervasive CalFresh attrition is for income-eligible individuals and families
We know that about one in three households who are eligible for CalFresh don’t participate in the program. It’s long been suspected by policymakers and advocates that administrative burdens make it hard for folks to enroll in the program and to remain enrolled while they’re already in.
So what we [at the California Policy Lab] do is we use enrollment data from the last 15 years for the first program, and we look at what predicts why households might leave the program. We find that when households have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, submit some type of paperwork demonstrating that they’re eligible, which happens about every six months, that houses are about six times more likely to leave the program.
On the difficulty of the paperwork, and how it is not like state unemployment
There’s different requirements [for the paperwork], whether it’s a full annual — what they call “recertification” — or a “semiannual report.” But this is a multipage form. You have to relist the people who are in your household. You have to identify how much you’re spending on particular expenses, demonstrate how much you’ve earned in the last month, and in some cases, complete an interview with a local caseworker.
It’s fairly complicated. There’s some expectation that the shorter, semiannual report might be easy. But again, in our research, we show that more than half of households don’t remain enrolled past the first eligibility check-in.
On what the federal government, state and local government can do to make the process smoother
Enrollment in CalFresh reached record highs in the spring amidst the global pandemic. There are long lines at food pantries across the state, so short term solutions — which the state did pursue — and the federal government did allow, was to suspend some of these eligibility check-ins to allow households to remain enrolled a little bit longer without having to go to a local county welfare office and demonstrate their eligibility.
But long term, we should think about how we can improve participation again. Even before the pandemic, one in three households who are eligible for the program didn’t enroll. One, arguably, very easy way is to not ask households to jump through all of these bureaucratic hoops as often as we do. If most folks who are in the program are still eligible, maybe asking them to submit a tremendous amount of paperwork, list everything they spend money on, asking them to submit documentation of their earnings is unhelpful in helping us target the program.
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