Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, communities across the nation have seen widespread hunger and diminished access to essential goods. The number of applications to social safety net services, such as CalFresh food assistance here in California, has skyrocketed, placing immense strain on the social services agencies and community-based nonprofits that process them. Here and around the country, agencies have been under-resourced and ill-prepared to deal with the surge of people seeking help to meet their most basic needs. If we want to make it easier for people with low incomes to get food onto their tables, we must address the myriad challenges that get in the way.
Food access advocates have long pushed for a general increase in client allotments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as CalFresh in California), especially in places with high costs of living, like the Bay Area. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House have sought to cut food assistance. But COVID-19 has pressured the federal government into action that expands food assistance. For example, Congress approved the creation of the Pandemic EBT program, which provides the parents of children who receive free or reduced school meals with a one-time allocation of $365 to spend on SNAP eligible foods. The parents receive the funds through a temporary electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which functions like a debit card.
Similarly, at the onset of the pandemic, California received a federal waiver that allowed the state a faster track to implement an Online EBT pilot that was only available in a few other states. Online EBT allows CalFresh recipients to buy groceries online using their EBT card. Though this has made it possible for CalFresh recipients to order food at home and avoid in-person shopping, it’s also brought on unintended challenges, including how to cover the cost of potentially high delivery fees. Currently in California, delivery is primarily offered by Amazon and Walmart. Independent grocers and local chains sometimes offer free delivery to compete with the big chains, but few of them have their own online portals. If more independent stores could afford the costs of developing a portal (and could integrate it with EBT payment), customers could save money on fees.
The Pandemic Is Taxing an Overburdened System
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, California has seen tens of thousands of people take advantage of online portals that allow them to apply for CalFresh and unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, this surge in traffic has overloaded online portals and social service agency hotlines. This difficulty has only compounded the incredible pressure already faced by low-income people who have to gather the essentials for their immunocompromised, elderly and other high-risk friends and family.
Imagine how hard it would be to navigate the social safety net if you’ve never had to rely on it in the past. This is a new reality for a lot of formerly middle-class people. Now imagine that same challenge with shelter-in-place restrictions and social distancing protocols. Don’t forget that you’re one of hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed and struggling people also applying for benefits. SPUR is even receiving form submissions through our Double Up Food Bucks website asking for support associated with CalFresh applications, as well as urgent requests for food.
Six Ways to Get Better Outcomes From California’s Benefits-Delivery System
If we hope to create any semblance of stability in the social safety net, we must ensure that the agencies and community-based organizations responsible for administering and managing SNAP client cases are not burdened by unnecessary and superfluous processes that eat up valuable staff time.
Whether people apply for CalFresh using Code for America’s GetCalFresh.org platform, go into a county social services office, or go through a screening process at one of the many community-based organizations that help people access benefits, there’s always a chance of hitting a snag along the way. Applicants may not have the proper income or housing information and might not know which parts of the application require pre-research.
The number of people in need of food benefits and other assistance is not going down any time soon. But there are six changes California can make to its benefits delivery system to help ease the burden and get help to more people, faster.
1. Create a one-stop-shop for getting information and applying.
Imagine trying to navigate the social safety net for the first time, in the midst of a pandemic, with no one place to find out what benefits you’re eligible for, how to apply for them, what kind of information you’ll need to provide, or how long it will take to start receiving them. Even after you’ve started to receive benefits, you’ll need to satisfy specific reporting requirements that differ from agency to agency. One way to make it easier for people to access benefits is to create a clear gateway for getting information and submitting an application. Ideally this would take the form of a client-facing website that could be easily accessed on a handheld device.
2. Develop a universal intake form or portal for different kinds of benefits.
Many county social service agencies experience client churn, where a family loses benefits while still eligible and must got through the application process multiple times. This churn can take place for one type of benefit, or across many kinds, depending on each client’s situation. One way to prevent churn and maximize the opportunity for a client to access multiple benefits is to create a universal benefits intake form and/or multi-program benefit portal that can be accessed online. The Bridges benefits portal in Michigan solves the issue by screening multiple programs when someone applies for one. While there has been some movement in this direction by individual counties in California, a statewide approach would be more efficient.
3. Accept telephonic signatures.
Once someone has figured out where to apply for CalFresh and other benefits, there are ways to make the application process smoother for them. One is removing the requirement that people sign documents by hand and instead allowing telephonic signatures of administrative documents. This would eliminate the need for additional correspondence between staff and the client – saving the client and county staff the time burden of coordinating document signatures. Agency staff would ask the client permission to record them agreeing to the application’s terms on a phone call as a replacement for a handwritten signature. Waivers that allow telephonic signatures have been approved at the federal level on a month-to-month basis, but the pandemic has shown that this can and should be waived permanently by the Food and Nutrition Service at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
4. Permanently waive the USDA’s interview requirement.
Once someone submits their application, the law requires county staff to interview the applicant before enrolling them in CalFresh. This interview requirement has seriously hindered potential clients and county agencies alike. Because of COVID-19, the interview requirement was waived for several months, but this recently changed. The USDA denied the State of California’s request to continue bypassing the interview process of a CalFresh application for the month of September. This will continue to overburden social services agencies and potential CalFresh users until USDA grants a permanent waiver of the interview requirement. The expansion of CalFresh eligibility to include Supplement Security Income (SSI) recipients in June of 2019 came with an interview waiver, proving that this can be done without a flood of fraudulent applications.
5. Waive re-reporting requirements for older people and people with disabilities.
If you are over 60 and/or disabled, after six months of receiving your benefits you’re required to complete a two-page report, and at 12 months you’re required to do an interview and a longer “redetermination report” on the status of your income, household size and expenses. Elderly and disabled CalFresh clients are typically on fixed incomes and their income and living situations rarely change. A waiver that lessens their reporting requirements would reduce churn and spare much time and paperwork at agency offices. Alabama has already implemented this strategy; a 2018 USDA report shows that reducing the reporting burden on the elderly and disabled reduces client churn.
6. Expand healthy food incentive programs statewide.
In addition to making it easier to access and use benefits, another way to make food assistance benefits better is to increase them. Healthy food incentives, like SPUR’s Double Up Food Bucks program, do just that by providing a dollar-for-dollar match when CalFresh clients buy California-grown produce with their CalFresh benefits at participating grocery stores. Current healthy food incentive programs are unique to each retail location and don’t have uniform mechanisms that can scale up easily. But the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Project, of which SPUR was a bill sponsor, can help make the case to the legislature that healthy food incentive programs should be permanent. By making it easier to overcome the technological hurdles in different retail settings, these pilots could allow the state to focus on finding the funding necessary to make incentives a permanent supplement to CalFresh.
The ways that Californians tap into the social safety net have changed. Our antiquated processes no longer suffice. State and local policy makers need to change the current systems, leveraging new technology to adapt to the new reality forced upon us by COVID-19. California has already implemented some temporary changes, and the house hasn’t come crumbling down. Those changes are helping people get the food they need to feed themselves and their families. Beyond making these changes permanent, California can improve its system even more by developing an all-inclusive benefits portal and state-wide healthy food incentives. With so much to be done, legislators can support our hardworking local agencies and community organizations by stepping up to pursue these recommendations.