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California still second to last in food stamp participation, federal officials report

February 2, 2011 |  6:50 pm

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Just half the eligible Californians were receiving food stamps in 2008, a slight improvement over previous years but well below the national average of 66%, according to federal estimates released Wednesday.

California officials dispute the way the figures are calculated and say they are outdated.

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“The information is based on 2008 data which is three years old, and it doesn’t reflect the impact of some of the recent program changes that were made to increase the access of needy eligible families and adults,” said Maricela Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services.

More than 3.5 million Californians received the nutrition benefit in October, the most recent month for which state figures are available. That is nearly 46% more than in October 2008. But the number of people who qualify for the benefit has also increased and it is unclear whether enrollment has kept pace with that growth.

Advocates for low-income families said the state and counties have taken steps in the right direction but more needs to be done.

“There has been some progress in increasing the program’s visibility, but not nearly enough progress at simplifying the application” process, said Matthew Sharp, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

California’s participation rate was up two percentage points from 2007, according to the report prepared by Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Researchers used U.S. Census surveys to estimate how many residents were eligible. Only Wyoming had a lower rate, 46%. The highest rates were recorded in Maine (94%), Oregon (92%) and West Virginia (91%).

California officials would like researchers to consider its recipients of federal Supplemental Security Income for elderly and disabled people as food stamp beneficiaries, which they say would improve the state's participation rate. California decided in 1974 to increase its matching grant -- known as the State Supplementary Payment -- by $10 a month in place of administering food stamps for them.

The report’s authors said they adjusted their estimates to reflect that the 1.2 million Supplemental Security Income recipients in California were not eligible to receive food stamps.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have pressed California for years to simplify the program's administrative requirements. The federal government pays for the benefit and for half the costs of administering the program, with the rest shared between the state and counties.

California is the only state that requires most recipients to report their income every three months.  Most states have reduced reporting requirements to twice a year, which federal officials say has cut the workload and helped needy families avoid losing benefits because of clerical errors, or because they fail to complete a form.

California is also one of a handful of states that require food stamp applicants to be fingerprinted,  which critics say drives away some potential applicants.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) would eliminate the fingerprinting requirement and reduce  reporting to twice a year. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar bills, citing fraud concerns and the cost of switching systems. His successor, Jerry Brown, has not said whether he would sign such changes into law.

Schwarzenegger's administration implemented a number of other options offered by the federal government to improve participation, including allowing county welfare officers to interview applicants by phone and modifying the eligibility rules so low-income families do not have to use up their savings to receive the benefit. The program was recently rebranded as CalFresh, to reduce the stigma associated with food stamps.

In Los Angeles County, residents can get help with their applications at food pantries, hospitals, churches and a new mobile office van. Soon, they will also be able to apply online.

“The process is much easier now than in 2008,” said Philip L. Browning, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. “I’m confident the numbers will improve.”

-- Alexandra Zavis

Map: Rates of participation by state. Source: Mathematica Policy Research, for the Food and Nutrition Service

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