Aug. 29 2012 10:03 AM

But advocates say it's too good to be true'

Advocates say long lines, like this one at the Family Resource Center in El Cajon, can deter people from applying for food stamps.
Photo by Dave Maass

For the last several years, San Diego County's had the reputation of being one of the lowest-performing counties when it comes to getting people enrolled in CalFresh, California's version of the federal food-stamps program. Two health-advocacy organizations—California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)— have placed San Diego County 49th out of California's 58 counties and last out of major urban areas, respectively. Both organizations have estimated that less than half of people eligible for CalFresh benefits were actually receiving them.

"Have estimated" is important—the problem with reports like FRAC's and CFPA's is timeliness. Both rely on federal data that's often a year or more behind. CFPA's most recent report, released in February, uses 2010 numbers; FRAC's most recent report, released last year, uses 2008 numbers. But the findings in these reports still dog the county despite its efforts to boost CalFresh enrollment.

Wanting to get a better sense of the current participation rate, the county's Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB), which has been marshaling an overhaul of the local CalFresh program, asked for an updated participation rate. At SSAB's May meeting, a county epidemiologist gave a presentation that took issue with FRAC's methodology—which put the county's estimated participation rate at 40 percent in 2008—and projected that the current participation rate is 79 percent.

Jennifer Tracy, executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, says she wasn't sure what to make of the finding.

"Honestly, it seemed too good to be true given the problems we see and the high error rate where eligible people are denied."

The error rate Tracy refers to is data kept by the California Department of Social Services that tracks the rate at which eligible people are denied benefits in error. San Diego County's negative error rate for October 2011 through March 2012 was 31.6 percent—above the state average of 24.4 percent.

"That means the maximum the participation rate can be is 70 percent. I don't think they take into account the fact that they kick 30 percent out of the door right away," says Bill Oswald, who chairs the Caring Council and was a member of an ad-hoc working group that recommended changes to the county's food-stamps program.

Advocates say they're still seeing long lines at Family Resource Centers—where folks go to sign up for benefits—and hearing from applicants whose benefits have been mistakenly denied or suspended.

"The bottom line is, it takes an advocate to get food stamps," Oswald says. "I don't think there's anybody who believes it's easy to get food stamps in San Diego County. And if you can, it's very difficult to keep them."

Getting a truly accurate, up-to-date participation rate is almost impossible.

For instance, people living at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($14,521 annually) are eligible for food stamps, but the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey counts people living at or below 125 percent of the poverty level. Foreign-born applicants must be legal U.S. residents for at least five years to qualify, but because data isn't readily available, researchers have to come up with complex calculators to determine the number of eligible foreign-born legal residents. FRAC explains its methodology and lays it out, step-by-step, in its "Access in Urban America" report. The explanation includes this caveat: "Any numbers generated with this methodology, including those published in this report, should be treated as estimates only."

While the county used FRAC's methodology to arrive at 79-percent eligibility, the report also takes issue with that methodology.

"It is difficult to have a one-size-fits-all measurement for every jurisdiction in the nation, particularly when population demographics and State [food-stamps] plan options, which vary, directly affect participation rates," says Dale Fleming, director of strategic planning and operations for the county's Health and Human Services Agency, via email.

Geraldine Henchy, FRAC's director of nutrition policy and early-childhood programs, stands by the methodology. She says FRAC would have worked with the county to address any concerns.

"They could have called us," Henchy says. "They could have said, ‘Make a new estimate, we're tired of this.' 

"They really were at 40 percent in 2008," she adds. "Now, they really are doing better. Are they doing 79 percent? I don't think so."

To arrive at 79 percent, the county used an estimate prepared in 2010 that predicted the economy would improve in 2012. This resulted in a smaller number of people living in poverty and an eligible population of 313,331. February's CalFresh enrollment was 247,146. Subtracting 247,146 from 313,331 leaves an enrollment gap of roughly 66,000 people.

Henchy finds this difficult to believe.

"There are more than 66,000 [eligible] people in San Diego County who aren't getting food stamps; there just are."

Given the economic climate, Henchy says, it would have been more accurate to use the most recent poverty data (2010) rather than a predictor.

"The number of people living under 125 percent of poverty just keeps going up, and we're likely to see that trend continue when they release the 2011 data," Henchy says. "It doesn't seem to get any better in 2012. We have to assume you want to go with the most upto-date that you have—the thing that represents most clearly the poverty level, and that argues for… 2010 data."

Using 2010 poverty data and February 2012 enrollment results in a 67-percent participation rate.

SSAB Chair Phil Thalheimer questions whether a much higher participation rate is even possible. (Though, FRAC's 2011 report had six counties with participation rates exceeding 90 percent.)

"There are people who by raw data are certainly eligible but they're not going to participate for a whole bunch of reasons," he says. "One-hundred percent, or even up in the 95, 96 [percent range] is not doable."

Thalheimer attributes this to two things—political, religious or cultural beliefs that dissuade peo ple from turning to the government for assistance and the fact that not everyone's eligible for the maximum benefit ($200 a month for an individual, $688 a month for a family of four).

"When you get to basically right on the border of where you're eligible or not, the return on the investment of your time is absurd," he says. "I mean, I wouldn't fill out this paperwork for $20 [a month], and neither would you. What's the point? You've got to file it, you've got to provide all sorts of personal data for $25 or $30 or $50. Who's going to do that?" 

Tracy, from the San Diego Hunger Coalition, says she doesn't disagree that applying might not be worth the effort for some folks, but she also points out that the national debate surrounding food stamps is such that many people feel ashamed about asking for help.

"Yes, for some people, like seniors who may only receive $16 per month, it takes some discussion to work out why it's worth it—$16 in food means 10 more servings of protein and fruits and vegetables each month; $16 in food money can save $16 in cash, which can cover a medication copay, or telephone bill.

"Even for those people, I think the county and the community can continue to work to dispel myths and keep up the conversation about hunger and the importance of anti-hunger programs," she says.

Correction and clarification: An earlier version of this article read "Foreign-born applicants 18 or older must be legal U.S. residents for at least five years to qualify" for food stamps. That's incorrect. Applicants of any age must be legal residents. Also, while the federal government requires five years of residency before a legal immigrant can receive benefits, California operates a state-level program for eligible legal residents who've been in the U.S. for less than five years. 

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