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Burdensome Rules Keep Eligible San Diegans From Receiving Food Stamps

A line of grocery carts are shown parked in front of a San Diego Target store...

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: A line of grocery carts are shown parked in front of a San Diego Target store Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

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Thousands of people across the county get CalFresh, commonly known as food stamps, to help them buy food. But KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser says the program regularly pushes out ... Read more →

Aired: March 30, 2021 | Transcript

Maria Gonzalez de Ochoa was gratified and relieved after she was finally accepted into the CalFresh food stamps program in 2020. But, within a matter of months, her elation had turned to disappointment.

“It took them a while to reply but, blessed be God, they did accept me,” said the 74-year-old housekeeper. She spoke in Spanish while leaning on the wall outside her El Cajon apartment. “I only lasted a mere two months.”

Gonzalez de Ochoa was told her benefits had stopped because a report was missing. However, she said she had faxed the report to the county.

“I called and asked them if they had received it and they said ‘yes,’ but in the month of December I looked and saw that (the money) had not been deposited, and finally, towards the end of December, I called them and they said that it had been suspended due to that paper,” she said.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Maria Ochoa de Gonzalez, a 74-year-old housekeeper, speaks outside of her El Cajon apartment, Feb. 9, 2021.

Right now under the CalFresh Program, federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, an individual will receive $234 a month — a temporary increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gonzalez de Ochoa said she was using the extra money when she had it to buy fresher and healthier food such as chicken and fish.

But there are several hoops recipients have to routinely jump through to continue receiving the money. Every six months, most recipients have to file one of two state forms proving they are still eligible for the benefits.

The forms require recipients to report on their life in granular detail. They must provide written proof of any and all changes to their employment status, family size and living arrangements. Once a year, they also have to submit to an interview, either in-person or on the phone. If any of these steps are missed, the money stops.

Access Denied

The complicated process regularly drives out CalFresh recipients who are still eligible for the program, said Matt Unrath, a research fellow at UC Berkeley’s California Policy Lab. In San Diego County, between 50% and 71% of the recipients who left the program between 2016 and 2019 were still eligible for the benefits, according to a report compiled by Unrath and other researchers.

The study further showed that an average of nearly 74,000 San Diegans a year have left the CalFresh program — the third highest number of any county in the state, behind Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Across the state, between 55% and 75% of households who left the CalFresh program were still eligible, according to the study.

Unrath said the burdensome paperwork is a main contributor to the drop in participation. Participants are six times more likely to leave in the months when paperwork is required, he said.

The biggest challenge recipients have with the paperwork is providing documentation of their income and expenses, said Amanda Schultz Brochu, the chief program officer at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, a nonprofit that helps people apply for CalFresh.

“In a lot of cases, they have to submit pay stubs, verification of monthly income, and also expense receipts, including expenses related to rent, and medical deductions,” she said.

Anahid Brakke, the nonprofit’s CEO and the current chair of San Diego County’s Social Services Advisory Board, said her organization will be applying more pressure for additional county funding for case workers and call center operators who can help people get their benefits.

“There’s under staffing and a lack of training,” Brakke said. “We will see whether it’s been just a lack of funding that contributed to that or not now that we have more political will with a Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors.”

Brakke said she’d like to change the program so that when forms aren’t submitted on time, “the county should be doing more to help people, making it a priority to leave the case open and continue that case so that people don’t have to reapply.”

“We think this will be a win-win, it can save county resources and take less time, if we leave the case open,” she said.

San Diego County is doing what it can to help recipients, including sending text message reminders instead of just letters in the mail when forms are due, said Rick Wanne, the county’s director for self sufficiency programs for San Diego County.

“We the county send a notification by mail, with instructions on how to complete it, where to send it, with an envelope with free return, and we send a reminder text message with a link to complete the form online, if the customer wants to do it electronically,” he said.

If recipients don’t complete the form, and their benefits card stops working, they will call the county, and he said, operators can then help them fill out the form over the phone.

But, he said, some people stop their benefits while they’re still eligible because of “individual choice,” maybe because they don’t feel the normal pre-COVID-19 benefits of $17 a month are worth the paperwork.

Searching For Solutions

Wanne said he’s seen that temporary changes during COVID-19 have made it easier for people to stay enrolled. Since March 2020, the interview requirement has been suspended, but will likely return in July. The requirement to turn in the six-month form was also temporarily suspended, from March through October. Those numbers were not included in the study from UC Berkeley.

Scott Murray, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services declined an interview request, but sent email comments about the study.

Murray said starting in 2022, the six-month form requirement will be waived for households with only elderly or disabled individuals who have no earned income, which would impact about 500,000 households statewide. Those households would also be certified for three years and would not need to do an interview during that time.

The department is also setting up “a workgroup ... to evaluate and develop recommendations for improving California’s CalFresh reporting system, with an emphasis on access and retention,” Murray wrote.

Unrath, one of the authors of the Berkeley study, is advocating for changing the process permanently so recipients only file paperwork once a year, but said that would take a change in federal policy, because CalFresh is run using federal funds.

“It would be cheaper for the government, because it wouldn’t have to re-administer benefits as frequently, and that type of reform would benefit a bunch of eligible households while allowing just a few ineligible people to stay enrolled,” he said.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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