As economy improves, fewer Californians use food stamps

Sandy Nemec of Carmichael, right, buys a bag of cherries with "Market Match" coupons at the Farmer's Market at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento on May 24, 2017.
Sandy Nemec of Carmichael, right, buys a bag of cherries with "Market Match" coupons at the Farmer's Market at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento on May 24, 2017.

For 10 years, the number of California residents on food stamps increased, ultimately doubling to more than 4.4 million by late 2015.

That trend has reversed in the last year, thanks largely to an improving economy and low unemployment. About 400,000 fewer Californians take food stamps today than during late 2015, according to the latest state and federal data.

The food stamp program provides monthly food benefits to low-income households. Eligibility is based on household size and income. A family of four earning less than $4,042 a month – about $48,500 a year – would generally be eligible for benefits under income guidelines.

CalFresh participation increased sharply following the economic recession for two reasons, said Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks. First, the economy created more poverty. Second, private and public organizations made a concerted effort to increase participation rates in the program, which are among the lowest in the nation.

“The CalFresh program is designed to expand and contract along with economic trends,” Sigler said, referring to the California’s name for the federal food stamp program. “When the economy is slower, the program is designed to serve those people through a temporary time of need. That’s what we see.”

Participation rates remain higher than a decade ago, Sigler said, but there are not as many people eligible for food stamps. The unemployment rate in California was just 4.7 percent in June.

“We’re seeing economic improvements drive declines,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

The number of food stamp recipients also declined nationwide last year, but not as much as in California. Senderling-McDonald said that is likely due to the reinstatement of three-month time limits for most unemployed food stamp participants without children in many states. Those time limits are mandated in federal law but were waived for many states during the recession. California has not yet reinstated those time limits; its waiver expires in September 2018.

Despite declining enrollment, California needs to do more to increase participation in the food stamp program, Sigler said.

Just 66 percent of those eligible for food stamps in California participate in the program, a lower participation rate than all other states except Wyoming, North Dakota and Nevada, according to the latest federal data.

And millions of Californians continue to live in poverty and struggle to feed themselves. The state’s food banks, Sigler said, continue to see more demand for food than they can meet.