500,000 eligible households leave CalFresh each year, policy brief finds

Photo of UC Berkeley Food Pantry
Jessica Schwabach/File
According to a brief authored by Matt Unrath, California Policy Lab research fellow, the majority of individuals who leave the CalFresh program were eligible for its benefits. Individuals were more likely to leave the program when the paperwork was mandatory.

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A policy brief published Friday found that each year, about 500,000 households leave CalFresh, a program that provides Californians with food stamps.

The brief — from the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley — specifically found that individuals were more likely to leave the program when the paperwork was mandated and that the majority of those who left the program were eligible for its benefits. In order to help remedy these challenges, the brief called on county, state and federal policymakers to limit the amount of required paperwork and bolster communication, among other recommendations.

As of 2019, the brief stated that about 14% of California’s population relied on CalFresh for assistance. However, one-third of eligible Californians do not use the service, according to Matt Unrath, brief author and California Policy Lab research fellow. He added that if California narrowed its participation gap, the state could receive more than $2 billion dollars in additional federal funding every year.

“CalFresh provides incredibly important support to those who receive it,” Unrath said in an email. “It’s concerning that so many families might be missing out on this assistance.”

Households are about six times more likely to leave CalFresh when they are asked to provide paperwork verifying their eligibility, according to the brief. Furthermore, nearly one-fifth of CalFresh recipients left the program within the first month of being required to provide the required paperwork.

Challenges associated with CalFresh have been heightened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which its enrollment reached an all-time high in spring 2020, according to the brief.

“While more Californians are likely to need food assistance, the stressors of the pandemic make already complicated processes even more difficult to navigate, reducing the likelihood that those who need help the most can apply and remain enrolled in CalFresh,” the brief reads.

In order to help reduce the number of eligible individuals who leave CalFresh, the brief calls on federal policymakers to approve requests by states to “suspend” certain requirements during the pandemic. In the long term, the brief recommends that federal policymakers limit the quantity of paperwork required and increase the time between each eligibility verification.

The brief also suggests that state policymakers make the CalFresh interface more user-friendly and have counties complete surveys on a regular basis to gauge methods to increase retention. On the county level, it advocates for increased communication with CalFresh recipients and decreased paperwork requirements.

“Too many Californians, including seniors and kids, are going without meals that CalFresh benefits could have provided,” Unrath said in the email.

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the brief called upon state and federal policymakers to “suspend” certain requirements during the pandemic. In fact, the brief calls on federal policymakers to approve requests by states to “suspend” certain requirements during the pandemic.