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Burdensome Rules Keep Eligible San Diegans From Receiving Food Stamps

 March 30, 2021 at 10:56 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Maureen Kavanaugh with Jade. Heinemann thousands of people across the County get CalFresh, commonly known as food stamps to help them buy food. But KPBS investigative reporter Claire Tresor says the program regularly pushes out people who are still eligible for the extra money. Speaker 2: 00:21 Skyla fish well salmon, which is at a time very expensive. Maria Gonzalez Choa stands outside her Elka Hoehn apartment and talks about what she likes to buy with her CalFresh food stamps. It was a moron salmon, fresh chicken, the green organic kind. We like the good stuff. When it is available. The 74 year old house cleaner finally got on the program in 2019, it took them a while to reply, but bless be good. They did accept me, but I only lasted a mere two months. Within a matter of months, her elation had turned to disappointment. Gonzalez to Choa was told her benefits had stopped because a report was missing. However, she says, that's not right. You have Layla. I called and asked them if they had received it. And they said, do you want me to have towards the end of December, I called them. And they said that it had been suspended due to the paper right now under the CalFresh program, which distributes food stamps paid for by the federal government and individual will receive $234 a month, a temporary increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this money comes with a number of strings attached. Every six months recipients have to provide written proof of any and all changes to their employment, status, family size and living arrangements. 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. Speaker 3: 02:01 Couples are six times more likely to leave the program in these months in which they have to jump through one of these paperwork hoops. Speaker 2: 02:08 Matt unwrap a research fellow at UC Berkeley's California policy lab says the complicated process regularly drives out CalFresh recipients who are still eligible for the program in San Diego County and across the state between half and three quarters of the recipients who left the program were still eligible for the benefits. According to the study, Speaker 3: 02:31 We think that this has to do with, um, under staffing and a lack of training Speaker 2: 02:39 On a heat Brackey is CEO of the San Diego hunger coalition, a non-profit that helps people apply for CalFresh. She says there needs to be more County funding for caseworkers and call center operators who help people get their benefits. Speaker 3: 02:55 Um, we are, we will see, um, whether it's been just a lack of funding that has contributed to that, or not now that we've got more political will to make these things happen. Um, but what we're seeing is a little bit too much comfort with how much people suffer, trying to go through the process. Speaker 2: 03:17 San Diego County is doing what it can to help her. Symbionts says Rick Wayne, the county's director for self-sufficiency programs. Speaker 3: 03:25 We do send it to them, uh, by mail with instructions on how to complete it and where to send it back. Um, we include, uh, uh, an envelope with a free postage on it. We also send all of our customers a text message reminder, uh, when their, uh, report is due. That message also has a link, uh, where the customer can actually complete it electronically, Speaker 2: 03:51 But he says some people stop their benefits while they're still eligible because of quote, individual choice. There have been some temporary changes to the program during COVID-19 for six months, no forms were required and the interview requirement has been suspended, but will likely return in July. Also next year, households with only elderly or disabled individuals who have no earned income will not have to submit forms, but unwrap the coauthor of the Berkeley study wants more. He says, all recipients should only file paperwork once a year. Speaker 3: 04:30 It's going to be cheaper for government because you don't actually have to administer, uh, these, uh, recertifications as frequently. And it saves households a lot of time and stress. And for the most part, that type of reform would, um, more likely benefit a bunch of eligible households then, uh, allow ineligible households to remain enrolled, Speaker 2: 04:50 But that would take an act of Congress. Claire Trek, Asser KPBS news. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire triglyceride. Claire. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Now, let me follow up on the last piece of information in your report. Why would it take an act of Congress to change the six month update requirement for food stamps? Aren't those administrative rules set by agencies and not congressional action? Well, from my understanding it's, it's pretty murky you're right. That it's possible that it might just require a change in policies, say at the us department of agriculture, and there are things the state can do. I'm a spokesman for the state's department of social services said that starting in 2022, for example, they're going to make the six month form requirement waived for households, but only for households with only elderly or disabled individuals who have no earned income, which would be about 500,000, uh, households statewide. Um, and then those households would also be for three years. So they wouldn't need to do an interview during that time. So those are things that, that the state can do, but definitely an act of Congress would definitively, uh, make, make the change for everybody. Speaker 1: 06:11 Now, if someone has missed sending in forms and therefore been thrown off CalFresh, how difficult is the process to get back on? Speaker 2: 06:20 Well, they basically do have to do a full re application. Um, my understanding is there is a grace period. So if you don't turn in one form on time, you have 30 days to get that in on time. But then if you don't, you're fully kicked off and you have to reapply. And the application to get on is, um, more onerous than even the full recertification that, um, that initial application that you have to do Speaker 1: 06:47 Takes place during the in-person or the phone interview that's required. Is there any more information requested then in the paperwork? Speaker 2: 06:56 Well, from what I've heard, it varies some calls, some interviews are short and they just go over your paperwork and walk you through the rules of the program, but others can take an hour, um, and ask additional questions, ask for additional information. Um, and for some people in the program, um, from what I've heard this interview, it, it can sound kind of scary where it makes it seem like you've done something wrong, or maybe you're not eligible. You, you are trying to trick them and they're having to talk to you. So it's important to stress that this is a normal part of the process that everyone has to go through this interview. Now Speaker 1: 07:32 You say the amount of food stamps per month has been increased during the pandemic. Individuals can receive $234 a month. When does that increase end and has anything in the federal food stamp program been changed or increased by that huge stimulus package that just passed Congress? Speaker 2: 07:51 Yeah, you're right, exactly. The, the latest, uh, federal stimulus package just extended the increase through September. Um, so there's a 15% increase to whatever, uh, household was getting. Um, and that will now go through September and, you know, the amount that a household gets depends on the size and the amount of money that they earn. So whatever it was, normally, it's 15% on top of that. And, and that'll last through the end of the summer Speaker 1: 08:21 CEO of the San Diego hunger coalition had a very interesting quote in your report. She says, she thinks that among County officials there is quote a little too much comfort with how much people suffer through the process of getting and keeping CalFresh benefits. What does she mean by that? Speaker 2: 08:40 Well, I, I think what she means is just that it can be a pretty onerous process and that people really struggle with it and that people are saying, well, that's just, you know, the way that it is, this is what we need to do. And she really, I would want to upend that and say, you know, we need to get people more help, help from, you know, a call center or case managers who can really help them through the process and make sure that they get all the documentation that they need. Speaker 1: 09:10 And are there signs that the County will be devoting more energy to helping people access benefits? Speaker 2: 09:17 Well, you know, it's maybe too early to tell because, uh, the San Diego County board of supervisors will vote on a new fiscal year budget this summer. So I think that would be the time to look for, for those changes. I'm the CEO of the hunger coalition was saying that her hope is now that there is a democratic majority on the board of supervisors. She thinks they will be more favorable to spending money in this area. Um, but I guess we'll have to wait and see on that. Speaker 1: 09:45 And if people were allowed to update their CalFresh information just once a year, instead of every six months, is there any estimate on how many more eligible people would be able to keep their benefits? Yeah. Speaker 2: 09:58 The report from the, um, Berkeley policy lab, uh, says, you know, every six months they can see that one in five households leave. Um, so you can't say exactly, but I think that the estimate is if you got rid of that, most of those households would end up staying on. And one way that they are looking at that is back before 2013, the requirement used to be that you had to submit forms every three months. And at that time, you know, more than 10% of households would leave after three months. And when they got rid of that and changed it to six months, that fell down to 3% of households would leave every three months. So you could extrapolate that and say, potentially if we increase the requirement to once a year, then those one in five households would stay on and maybe just a small percentage would leave every six months. Speaker 1: 10:48 Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire Tresor and Claire. Thank you. Thank you so much.

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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 people who are still eligible for the extra money.
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