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Hunger in California

The state has erected barriers to food stamps for hungry people, and its school breakfast program is not meeting students' needs.

December 13, 2009

California is a bad place to be hungry. While the demand for food stamps is increasing across the nation, people who are eligible for the program are less likely to be enrolled in it here than in any other state but Wyoming. The percentage of low-income children who eat free breakfasts at school here is also lower than the national average.

Even if the financially crippled state had to pay for food stamps and school breakfasts, its failure to feed the poor would be a source of shame. Nothing is more fundamental to society than keeping hunger at bay. But food stamps and subsidized breakfasts for children are federal programs; the state is responsible only for some administrative costs for food stamps. In other words, the state and many of its school districts are turning away money to alleviate hunger, money that would boost the spending power of impoverished households, improve the health of residents and help children achieve more in school -- all of which would improve the state's economy too.

California has erected barriers to food stamps for hungry people, and in the process has increased the state's administrative costs. It's not as though the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, appreciates the state's scrimping on its behalf. Quite the opposite. In late November, Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, wrote a letter sharply rebuking states with low participation rates. Concannon chided those states, which he did not name, for creating "a more complex and difficult enrollment process" that serves neither the hungry nor the taxpayer well.

The letter was sent soon after the USDA released a report showing that only 48% of those eligible received food stamps in 2007 in California, one of only two states that failed to register at least half of their eligible residents for the program. (Illegal immigrants are not eligible.) The top eight states enrolled more than 80%; in Missouri, virtually every eligible resident received nutrition assistance.

Because of the miserable economy, the number of Californians receiving food stamps has grown 13% a month since the beginning of the year, to 2.9 million. But by revamping its approach, the state could receive up to $3.7 billion more in federal aid.

* Quarterly recertification. California is the only state that requires recipients to be recertified for eligibility every three months. Other states require recertification just twice a year. Each update is a chance for people to fall through the cracks. They may forget the deadline or get the paperwork in late. They may be employed sporadically -- with a temporary job at the three-month mark that disqualifies them for food stamps, then jobless a few weeks later. Only a third of the state's working poor who qualify for food stamps receive them. Quarterly recertification also means twice as much paperwork and administrative time.

The USDA has ordered California to switch to a six-month schedule. Earlier this year, the state asked for a four-year extension of its quarterly system, and was denied -- but it still has until September 2011 to implement the new rules. It should move faster than that.

* Fingerprinting. Fingerprinting of food-stamp recipients is intended to reduce fraud, so that a single person cannot receive food stamps in more than one county. But for some -- the infirm, the working poor -- simply getting to the local welfare office to be fingerprinted can be onerous enough to keep them from enrolling.

California is one of only four states that still require fingerprints, and those that have eliminated the requirement have not experienced rampant fraud. A 2005 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that nationwide, fraud in the food stamp program is extremely low. At about $1 a meal, it's hard to get rich off food stamps. A November report by the California state auditor questioned whether the fingerprinting is cost-effective.

* In-person interviews. In October, the state gave counties the option of conducting interviews with applicants by phone instead of face to face. As with fingerprinting, the face-to-face interviews proved burdensome for people who had trouble getting time off work or for whom transportation was a particular problem. The state should simply eliminate these interviews except in cases where there is reason to suspect fraud.

California does somewhat better with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school breakfasts, though according to a new report by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, it still ranks 33rd nationally -- and loses out on more than $97 million in federal funding each year that would pay for those meals. Every child who is entitled to a free lunch also qualifies for a free breakfast. Studies have shown that breakfasts not only provide important nutrition but improve classroom achievement. Yet in California, only 42% of the children in the lunch program also receive school breakfasts.

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