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California is expensive, but that's ignored by food stamp rules

California is expensive, but that's ignored by food stamp rules

Picture of Julia Baum
soup aisle at the grocery store

Why does one of the wealthiest countries in the world make its most vulnerable citizens choose between food or shelter? It may seem crazy that the government doesn’t take action on behalf of citizens who can’t eat because more than half of their monthly income goes toward housing, but it’s happening more than many realize.

When I was laid off from my last job more than a year ago, I applied for food stamps and was stunned to learn that not everyone on unemployment qualifies for monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Eighty-six percent of my unemployment benefits went towards my astronomically high Bay Area rent (yes, you read that right), but according to the federal government, I still didn’t qualify for any meaningful food assistance.

The anti-hunger nonprofit Hunger Free America reports that one in 10 adults (nearly 15 million) and almost one in six children have gone to bed on an empty stomach at least once during the past three years. Nearly eight percent of older Americans (60 years and older) also lived in food insecure households during the same time period; ten percent of seniors age 60 and older also rely on food stamps. More than 8.5 million Americans are also not eligible for SNAP because they already receive benefits from Supplemental Security Income, even though those payments aren’t even adequate enough for many people to cover their housing and other living costs.

Anyone who spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing is considered “cost burdened,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those who spend half or more are “severely cost burdened”; the 2010 U.S. Census found that in the high-cost state of California, more than half of the renters in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties are above the 30 percent threshold. More recently, a UCLA study reported more than three-quarters of the state’s low-income senior population is in the same boat, with more than 28 percent experiencing a severe rent burden. 

Despite clear and overwhelming evidence of California’s much higher cost of living, the federal government does not account for these income gaps when determining how much food stamp benefits to allocate for each household or if they even qualify. Contemporary poverty measuring methods like the California Poverty Measure, which was developed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California, estimate that roughly 40 percent of the state’s population was poor or near poor in 2016.

My 2019 California Fellowship project will be an in-depth examination of Californians that are experiencing food insecurity and the policies that perpetuate this pervasive problem. I plan to interview food bank operators like the Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Clara County, one of the largest in the country, for insight on how they meet the needs of people who are food insecure. I will also reach out to experts and policy analysts at the California Department of Social Services, which manages the CalFresh/SNAP program, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture.

I will also discuss the California Poverty Measure with the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California to learn more about its history, purpose and role in addressing food access.

My hope is to compel the public and lawmakers to implement new policies and programs that eliminate these gaps in food access and ensure that acquiring healthy, fresh food is not an issue for anyone in the state at any income level.

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Our California Impact Fund offers mentorship and support to reporters who think big and want to make a difference in their communities through investigative or explanatory reporting on promising approaches to chronic ills. 


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