CalFresh must be made more accessible, less prohibitive for Californians

STATE AFFAIRS: CA’s struggle with food assistance is not a matter of paucity but paper shuffling

Illustration of people standing in line to buy food, blocked by an insurmountable pile of paperwork
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Government assistance programs should make it easier, not harder, for people to gain access to resources they need, particularly when it comes to a basic need such as food. But CalFresh, which provides monthly food benefits to low-income households in California, seems to erect more hurdles than it clears.

Only about 70% of households eligible for food assistance in California enroll in the assistance program — one of the lowest rates in the country. What’s more, an estimated 500,000 eligible households withdraw from CalFresh each year, according to a policy brief from the California Policy Lab. That means more than half of the households leaving the program likely still qualify for benefits.

A possible reason for their departure? Burdensome paperwork. 

CalFresh can be a tedious program to navigate. The enrollment process can prove complex and time-consuming; for those already enrolled, rules requiring frequent and extensive proof of eligibility can discourage people from going through the trouble of re-upping.

It’s not as if the government lacks sufficient resources to aid food insecure Californians. It’s a different problem entirely — and, frankly, an untenable failure — that the state has the necessary resources but is unable, or unwilling, to distribute them effectively.

This is especially the case when access to food has lasting impacts on people’s health and well-being. A recent study by a UC Berkeley School of Public Health alumnus shows that exposure to food insecurity from an early age can hinder growth and physical development. Food insecurity can also be a source of immense stress, forcing people into difficult trade-offs between basic needs such as food, housing and medical care. These are choices nobody should have to make.

This year, largely as a result of the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, levels of food insecurity are higher than they’ve been in years. There also exists further inequity: Black and Latinx households are far more likely to be food insecure than white households.

To augment enrollment and retention of all eligible households in CalFresh, governments at both the federal and state level must work to improve the registration process, reducing paperwork and consolidating or simplifying the necessary steps involved. The frequency of verification requirements could also be reduced: Financial situations seem unlikely to change as abruptly or significantly as current timelines suggest. 

Local jurisdictions, including counties and cities, should not be held primarily responsible for fixing government programs largely out of their control. Still, Alameda County and the city of Berkeley can do their part to ensure eligible residents are aware of available government assistance, and that these resources are made readily accessible.

It’s simple, really. People need easy and equitable access to food. The process of obtaining aid should not be as difficult as California has made it.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.