Why Californians need food assistance
The stories behind the numbers
Californians who receive food assistance come from all backgrounds, but many share a similar story: they were barely getting by financially when they were tipped into crisis by an unexpected expense or loss of income. This site shares their stories.
At Code for America, we run GetCalFresh.org, which helps more than 30,000 households apply for food assistance every month. We've heard again and again how difficult it is for people experiencing hunger to seek out help. Despite their hardships, many of our users describe their reluctance to ask for help. Many tell us that they have never asked for help before and are ashamed about their situation. People applying for food assistance feel the stigma that arises from deeply ingrained myths about poverty and welfare in American culture.
Our users' stories challenge these myths. They reflect the common financial struggles that lead people to seek out food assistance. We know that, as one of our users put it, "The less fortunate are invisible to so many people." Our aim is to surface their stories, with dignity and respect, in order to create a more accurate and memorable picture of the people who seek out and receive food assistance in California.
Facts about food assistance
Most GetCalFresh users were barely making ends meet when they were tipped into crisis by an unexpected expense, job loss, or cut in hours. Once cost of living is taken into account, California is the state with the highest poverty rate. Many Californians — working adults, families with children, students, seniors — live precarious financial lives, described in the stories in the first section of this site.
A financial shock, such as an illness or injury, a job loss, a rent increase, or even a car breakdown, might be enough to force a financially vulnerable household to make choices between food and other necessities. The second section of this site includes stories of adverse events that led Californians to seek out food assistance.
People feel shame in asking for help because they prefer to be self-sufficient. A common goal among users is to be on CalFresh for the shortest possible time. Others mention anxiety that friends, extended family, or employers might find out that they are seeking food assistance.
The myths of food assistance
Many Americans think that people on food assistance don't want to work. In fact, most households on food assistance have at least one person with a job, but their pay is very low or their hours are unpredictable. Two-thirds of people who receive SNAP are children, seniors, or people with disabilities.
Among SNAP households with children, 65% work any given month and 87% work within a year. Among SNAP households without children, 59% work any given month and 81% work within a year. Among adult SNAP recipients under age 60, over 60% are working and are on SNAP to deal with low pay or unstable work. The rest of adults on SNAP tend to be students, have a health issue or disability, or have caregiving responsibilities. Lastly, able-bodied adults without dependents can only receive SNAP for up to three months within a three year period unless they work or try to find work.
The USDA estimates that every $5 of SNAP benefits roughly translates into $9 of economic activity and that every billion dollars spent on SNAP supports the equivalent of 8,900 full-time jobs. Advocates project that closing the participation gap in California would generate $4.5 billion in additional economic activity and $88 million in local and state taxes.
In 2016, safety net programs kept 7.8% of Californians out of poverty, with CalFresh making the largest dent. Across the U.S., SNAP reduced the poverty rate in 2015 from 15.4% to 12.8%. SNAP improves health by providing stable access to food and nutrition.
The maximum benefit a single person can receive is $192 per month. SNAP benefits can only be used at certain grocery stores to purchase specific items. You can’t buy items like alcohol, tobacco, or pet food with SNAP benefits.
Entitlement programs like SNAP have an extremely low rate of cheating or fraud. If someone accidentally receives more benefits than they qualify for, they are required to pay the government back. In federal audits, 97% of SNAP benefits cases accurately reflect the recipients' circumstances.
93% of Federal SNAP dollars go to food that SNAP beneficiaries buy.
Applicants are linked to their social security number and are required to confirm their identity by submitting verification documents.
Barely getting by
Food assistance is a way of coping with a challenge that almost everyone is familiar with: making ends meet. Despite its size and economic diversity, California is the fourth most expensive place to live in the country, after Hawaii, Washington DC, and New York.
These economic circumstances mean that many Californians can't quite manage their monthly expenses. The most common challenge GetCalFresh users mention in their applications is not being able to afford food after paying for rent, utilities, and transportation to get to work.
Working, but still hungry
Most of the people receiving CalFresh benefits who can work, do work. But they often work in low-wage jobs like retail, the restaurant industry, home health, or construction. These jobs often have unsteady hours that can leave workers in financially unstable situations. Many lack benefits and flexibility, which can mean frequent job losses, fluctuating and insufficient hours, and gaps between jobs if transportation or child care falls through. Food insecurity for these workers harms the health of whole families.
The testimonials of these parents echo the research findings. In interviews with 90 families with children receiving SNAP benefits, academics found that about half restricted their own eating to make sure their children would have enough food. In the U.S. in 2017, 15.7% of households with children were food insecure. In about 45% of these households (or 7% of all U.S. households), adults reported skipping meals or cutting the size of a meal in the last 30 days.
Despite their efforts, parents often struggle to provide healthy food for their kids. The median GetCalFresh parent works 38 hours a week, earning $14.70 an hour. In fact, 66% of GetCalFresh households with children include a working adult. Nationally, 65% of SNAP households with children include someone who is working.
Just getting started: students and young adults
Many young adults, whether enrolled in college or starting their career, lack the income to meet their basic needs.
Students often take desperate measures to stay fed: they join clubs for the food, participate in research for cash, and ask friends to swipe them into the dining hall. In some counties, a large share of GetCalFresh applicants are students. For example, students account for 60.7% of applications in Santa Cruz County and 58% of applications in Yolo County.
Young people entering the workforce experience the least secure, lowest paid period of their careers. SNAP can serve as a bridge to get them through. GetCalFresh applicants below age 30 work four fewer hours a week (32 vs. 36 hours/week), and earn two dollars less per hour ($13 vs. $15/hour), than applicants in their thirties. Moreover, 46.1% of applicants under age 30 live by themselves, compared to only 28.5% of applicants in their thirties.
Seniors facing stigma
In California, the average monthly benefit for a senior is $158, making it especially worth their while to apply. Yet seniors represent the population with the greatest gap between their eligibility for SNAP and their enrollment in the program, due in large part to stigma. Nationally, SNAP reaches 85% of all eligible individuals, but only 45% of eligible seniors. In California, the disparity is worse: SNAP reaches 70% of all eligible individuals, but only 18% of eligible seniors.
With rising costs of living and the severe impacts of the 2007-2009 financial crisis on retirement savings among those approaching retirement age, many seniors do not have enough saved to have a stable retirement income.
As people age, they often struggle with declining physical or mental capacity to work. Many feel compelled to stop working, reduce their hours, or change jobs to cope with a major health crisis of their own or in their household. Even without health challenges, people in late middle age and over frequently report encountering age discrimination in the labor market. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many GetCalFresh users who are seniors mention unemployment as a reason for applying.
Setbacks and crisis
Households on the financial edge can hardly keep up with the bare necessities. With no buffer, a financial shock like a car accident, medical emergency, or unexpected layoff can break the budget for months, forcing people to choose between food, housing, and medical care.
Academic researchers distinguish financial shocks that lead to increased expenses (such as a rent increase or car breakdown) from those that lead to decreased income (such as reduced hours at work, or a job loss). In this section, we'll share applicants' stories of the shocks that led them to seek food assistance. Common financial shocks include losing a job, getting sick or injured, or needing to care for a family member. Natural disasters, while less frequent, can also be a shock — in late 2018, thousands of people applied for food assistance after being displaced by California's wildfires.
Among GetCalFresh users under age 60 who live alone
Losing a job
For people who are already struggling financially, a job loss or reduction in hours is often the shock that makes food assistance necessary.
Roughly two in five households that fall into poverty do so because of the loss of a job. Nearly half (47%) of households that exit poverty will do so because of a new job. For people who are between jobs, SNAP reduces stress about food availability and the pressure to make trade-offs to get by. Clients share stories about dire choices they have made, like selling a car in a rush, or using rent money for food (and then being evicted). The most common reason applicants tell us they no longer need food assistance is that they went from unemployed to employed, found a better job, or got more hours. SNAP provides the stability to find a higher paying job or one with more regular hours.
Illness, injury, and disability
When illness or injury strikes, taking time away from work and managing medical bills add to the financial strain of Californians living close to the poverty line.
People who have recently become disabled may qualify for disability (SSI), but rely on SNAP while they wait. It may take three to four months to get an initial decision for disability benefits, which was a denial in 80% of disability cases in 2016. Those denied often appeal, but in 2017, the average wait for an appeal was nearly 20 months. More than 40% of SNAP participants with a disability do not receive SSI or SSDI and 28% of non-elderly adults on SNAP have a disability.
Caring for a family member
Caring for a child, an older relative, or a disabled spouse can be a full-time job with no salary or benefits. With little time to earn income, caregivers often seek food assistance to help them get by.
It's hard to find care for disabled children and adults who are not yet seniors. Family members providing care often have to cut back on their work hours. This reduces a family's ability to buy healthy food. Households with disabled individuals are two to three times more likely to be food insecure.
Natural disasters hit the poor the hardest
California is prone to natural disasters like fires, droughts, and earthquakes. The impact of a disaster on low-income communities can be catastrophic, revealing how many people were living on the edge. They may have been able to just make ends meet, but had limited insurance and a very small rainy day fund to buffer losses like having to move and find a new job. Following a disaster, food assistance is an important form of aid, in addition to FEMA and unemployment insurance. These programs help lower income people with the support they need to get back on their feet.
As the stories above convey, CalFresh provides a critical line of support to those experiencing displacement from natural disasters. In the fall of 2018, catastrophic fires across California put many residents who were just getting by into a crisis, leading thousands to seek out food assistance.
How CalFresh helps
One in five Californians lives in poverty once the state's high cost of living is taken into account. CalFresh helps millions of California workers in low-paying jobs buy healthy food during a time of need.
Users tell us that CalFresh helped them through a challenging time. They also acknowledge that they had to overcome stigma in order to apply. Yet, taken together, their stories remind us that the stigma around food assistance is based on myths. First, most people don't want to live on government assistance. They want to be independent. They feel ashamed that they need help. Second, our users' stories show that people need assistance because of setbacks that could happen to anyone. Generally, people fall into poverty and apply for food assistance because of adverse circumstances and life events, not because of their work ethic. The research shows that individual financial vulnerability and crisis are products of our society. Yet, to the people who were barely getting by before a job loss, illness, or a natural disaster, their hardships may feel unique, inviting feelings of shame and isolation. The stories our users have shared remind us that those who need help are not alone in their circumstances, nor in their desire to get back on their feet.
GetCalFresh user stories remind us that the vast majority of people want to be self-sufficient. Research shows that over half of SNAP recipients who can work are working and that over 80% worked within 12 months of receiving SNAP. People often turn to SNAP when one household member becomes underemployed or loses a job — SNAP reduces food insecurity and stabilizes finances during these transitions. College students and new entrants to the labor force rely on SNAP as they build up their skills and increase their earnings potential, precisely so that they can avoid the job volatility and wage stagnation that our users in working families often describe. Our users, just like the vast majority of Americans, express a strong desire for independence and self-determination.
Research shows that SNAP is effective at reducing poverty
In 2016, CalFresh alone reduced the federal poverty rate in California by 2.1 percentage points. Unlike many safety net programs that benefit people in the middle of the income distribution, over 90% of SNAP benefits go to individuals below the federal poverty line.
Hunger is expensive for everyone. The healthcare costs attributed to hunger totaled over $160 billion in America in 2014. That year, federal and state SNAP spending nationwide was $74.2 billion. Numerous studies conclude that the SNAP program increases food security and improves health. Research has found that SNAP has particularly strong health benefits for young children. For example, SNAP reduces their risk of developing "metabolic syndrome", which can cause diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. SNAP also improves the health of babies at birth. Recent rigorous work shows that people don't replace their cash food budget with SNAP funds, they use SNAP funds to buy more food. Each SNAP dollar translates into 50-60 cents of additional total household spending on food.
SNAP is an economic investment. SNAP not only helps individuals make it through a difficult time, it energizes the local economy. When the economy is weak, SNAP is one of the strongest stimuli in the government's toolkit. During early 2009, each dollar spent on SNAP translated into $1.74 of economic activity. As California Food Policy Advocates' "lost dollars, empty plates" campaign illustrates, closing the participation gap would bring large economic gains to all California counties.
It's important to combat the stigma around food assistance. It's in no one's interest for people to wait to apply, or never apply, because they are ashamed to need help during hard times.
Click on the map to view county statistics and read stories from real CalFresh recipients across California
Experts on SNAP
- California Food Policy Advocates
- Center on Budget Policies and Priorities
- Food Research & Action Network
- Public Policy Institute of California
- Social Policy Research Associates
- Urban Institute
- US Department of Agriculture
Efforts to combat stigma around food assistance
- CityLab How the Other Half Eats
- This is SNAP
- FERN The Faces of Food Stamps
- Center for American Progress Community Voices: Why Nutrition Assistance Matters
- A Place at the Table (film and website)
Resources about stigma
- Mobility Partnership Changing the Narrative
- New America Inclusion by Design
- Turn2Us Benefits Stigma in Britain
- FrameWorks Institute on reducing stigma around human services
- National Council on Aging An End to Stigma
Selected news articles
- The Atlantic. 2012. The Economic Case for Food Stamps
- LA Times. 2016. How Do Americans View Poverty?
- Forbes. 2018. Your Next-Door Neighbor May Have Food Insecurity
- Vox. 2018. Social Security, Food Stamps, and Other Programs Kept 44 Million People out of Poverty Last Year
- AARP Foundation. 2013. "Hunger Among Older New Yorkers: Breaking Down the Barriers."
- AARP Foundation. 2013. "SNAP Access Barriers Faced By Low Income 50-59 Year olds."
- Almond et al. 2011. "Inside the War on Poverty: The Impact of Food Stamps on Birth Outcomes." Review of Economics and Statistics.
- Bartfeld et al. 2015. "SNAP" Food Security
- Bartfeld et al. 2016. "SNAP Matters: How Food Stamps Affect Health and Well-Being." Stanford University Press.
- Bauer and Schanzenbach. 2018. "Who Loses SNAP Benefits If Additional Work Requirements Are Imposed? Workers." The Hamilton Project.
- Blinder and Zandi. 2015. "The Financial Crisis: Lessons for the Next One." CBPP.
- Bohn et al. 2018. "Poverty in California." PPIC.
- Brady et al. 2017. "Rethinking the Risks of Poverty: A Framework for Analyzing Prevalences and Penalties." American Journal of Sociology.
- Butcher and Schanzenbach. 2018. "Most Workers in Low-Wage Labor Market Work Substantial Hours" in Volatile Jobs.
- CA Dept of Social Services. 2016. "Senior Healthy Food Access and Nutrition Education Webinar."
- Call and Shimada. 2016. "Lost Dollars" Empty Plates: The Impact of CalFresh on State and Local Economies.
- Carlson and Keith-Jennings. 2018. "SNAP Is Linked with Improved Nutritional Outcomes and Lower Health Care Costs." CBPP.
- Carlson et al. 2017. "SNAP Provides Needed Food Assistance to Millions of People with Disabilities." CBPP.
- CBPP. 2018. "A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits."
- CBPP. 2018. "Policy Basics: SNAP."
- Cellini et al. 2008. "The Dynamics of Poverty in the United States: A Review of Data" Methods
- Coleman-Jensen and Nord. 2013. "Food Insecurity Among Households With Working-Age Adults With Disabilities." USDA.
- Coleman-Jensen et al. 2018. "Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security in the United States in 2017." USDA.
- Desmond. 2018. "Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not." New York Times Magazine.
- Edin and Kissane. 2010. "Poverty and the American Family: A Decade in Review." Journal of Marriage and Family.
- Edin et al. 2013. "SNAP Food Security In-Depth Interview Study." USDA.
- Eslami. 2015. "State Trends in SNAP Eligibility and Participation among Elderly Individuals: 2008 - 2013." Mathematica Policy Research.
- Fischer. 2010. "Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character." University of Chicago Press.
- FNS. 2017. "SNAP State Activity Report: FY 2016."
- FNS. 2018. "SNAP: Frequently Asked Questions."
- Food Research & Action Center. "Closing the Senior SNAP Gaps."
- Fox. 2017. "The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2016." US Census Bureau.
- GAO. 2018. "SSA Disability Programs: Better Metrics and Evaluation Needed to Inform Decision-Making." Congressional Testimony of Elizabeth Curda
- Gundersen and Ziliak. 2015. "Food Insecurity And Health Outcomes." Health Affairs.
- Hanson. 2010. "The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier Model and Stimulus Effects of SNAP." USDA.
- Hastings and Shapiro. 2018. "How Are SNAP Benefits Spent? Evidence from a Retail Panel." American Economic Review.
- Hoynes and Schanzenbach. 2015. "U.S. Food and Nutrition Programs." NBER Working Paper.
- Hunger Report. 2015. "The Cost of Hunger in the United States." Bread for the World Institute.
- Keith-Jennings and Chaudhry. 2018. "Most Working-Age SNAP Participants Work" But Often in Unstable Jobs.
- Legal Services of Northern California. 2019. "Guide to CalFresh Benefits."
- Office of the Inspector General. 2017. "Detecting Potential SNAP Trafficking." USDA.
- Pinard et al. 2016. "What Factors Influence SNAP Participation?" Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.
- Renwick and Fox. 2016. "The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2015." US Census Bureau.
- Rosenbaum. 2013. "The Relationship Between SNAP and Work Among Low-Income Households." CBPP.
- Rude. 2017. "The Very Short History of Food Stamp Fraud in America." TIME.
- Social Security Administration. 2018. "Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program" 2017.
- Suh Lauder and Lauter. 2016. "Views on poverty: 1985 and today." Los Angeles Times.
- US Bureau of Economic Analysis. 2018. "Regional Price Parities by State and Metro Area."
- US Council of Economic Advisors. 2015. "Long-Term Benefits of SNAP." Obama Whitehouse Archives.
- US Council of Economic Advisors. 2015. "Long-Term Benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." Obama Whitehouse Archives.
- US FNS. 2017. "What Can SNAP Buy?"
- USDA. 2016. "Characteristics Of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2015."
- USDA. 2017. "SNAP Quality Control Annual Report: FY 2014."
- USDA. 2018. "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2019 Income Eligibility Standards."
- USDA. 2018. "Trends in SNAP Participation Rates: 2010 to 2016."
- USDA. 2018. "Food Security Interactive Charts and Highlights." USDA.
- Wheaton and Tran. 2018. "The Antipoverty Effects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." Urban Institute.