California’s food subsidy program at ‘crisis point’

County offices responsible for administering monthly food allowances to low-income Californians are understaffed and overwhelmed, leading to delays in services as the state blocks promised increase in CalFresh assistance program funding .

Families are experiencing longer wait times for help due to prolonged staff vacancies and case backlogs due to underfunding of state program administrative costs, said Kari Beuerman, director Marin County Social Services Department, where income disparities are significant.

The Marin County program maintains a 16-20% staff vacancy rate. Meanwhile, requests for CalFresh services there have increased by 70% between 2017 and 2021.

Counties across the state have had to make compromises to fill staffing gaps, Beuerman said, with some opting to shut down hotlines dedicated to assistance questions so workers can catch up on registration and paperwork. ‘eligibility.

“We are one of the counties considering our options to deal with the backlog,” she said. “We are really reluctant to go there, but we have to face our [staff] vacancy rate, high volume of applications and just an inability to do it all. We are going to have to make some tough decisions. »

As of December, 4.6 million people in California — nearly 12% of the population — were receiving monthly food benefits from CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to increase CalFresh’s budget. But the plan was delayed last year, and again in the governor’s budget plan released in January.

The Newsom administration acknowledged the need to increase the CalFresh funding system, which hasn’t changed in 20 years, but pointed to pandemic disruptions as the reason for the delay.

The federal government, which funds food benefits, covers only half of the administration costs to pay CalFresh staff and operate the offices. The rest is funded by the state and individual counties.

According to a legislative analysis, state funding for operating costs covers only about 60% of county needs.

Anti-poverty advocates have praised Newsom for expanding public assistance eligibility to more Californians, but county workers say they can’t keep up with the growing demand.

The governor offered more than $35 million in January to expand food benefits to all Californians over age 55, regardless of immigration status, because undocumented immigrants are not eligible for CalFresh. Last year, Newsom signed legislation extending CalFresh benefits to eligible students.

“There have been all sorts of policy changes that have expanded the population eligible for these benefits, which is wonderful, but funding hasn’t kept pace, making it extremely difficult to meet these demands in a timely manner. and have enough staff,” Beuerman said. “We struggle.”

County Welfare Directors Association. of California is asking Newsom to provide an additional $60 million in its budget proposal to address staffing shortages until state officials tackle their broader goal of overhauling the funding formula.

In Fresno County, where 17 percent of the population lives in poverty, there are 310 vacancies in the department, or a vacancy rate of about 12 percent.

Linda Du’Chene, assistant director of county social services, said workers are forced to prioritize CalFresh casework over the state’s Medi-Cal program because federal rules require those who are eligible receive food within 30 days and, in case of emergency. case, within three days.

“We don’t have enough manpower to split programs,” she said. “It can mean delays on the health care side, and that’s really unfortunate. It’s like we have to choose food over health care, and customers need both. This really puts the county in a dire position.

CalFresh funding has remained static despite significant changes in the state budget over the years – the formula hasn’t changed since the early 2000s when the state ended adjustments to the cost of life as he struggled to make cuts in light of a recession. But the state is now full of cash and has a record budget surplus.

The economic toll of the pandemic has triggered a record surge in CalFresh apps. In January 2020, an average of 4.1 million Californians received CalFresh benefits. By June 2020, that number had risen to 4.8 million.

State funding for counties to administer CalFresh benefits was $804 per household in 2000, and now equals $328 per household, according to Department of Social Services data.

While counties were clamoring for more funding before the pandemic, the so-called big quit has compounded the problem as people reassess in-person office jobs, making it harder to hire and retain workers.

“Professions like social workers and entitlement workers, it’s very, very stressful work at the best of times, but during the pandemic, those jobs have become even more difficult,” Beuerman said. “We have struggled to recruit and retain staff.

County Welfare Directors Association. of California estimates that if the state had provided annual inflation adjustments to its share of administration funding, counties would have received an additional $414 million this year. Combined with required federal and county matching funds, that could mean a shortfall of more than $1 billion, which would cover the salaries of about 6,400 workers, the group said.

“There really is a human toll. Our members are saying, ‘I’m not providing the service I want because I don’t have the staff,’” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, the association’s chief executive. “He’s reached crisis point.”

Senderling-McDonald said it’s understandable the pandemic has delayed plans, but additional funding is now crucial.

Tyler Woods, a Newsom Department of Finance analyst, told a legislative hearing last week that the Newsom administration was “open to discussion” about an additional $60 million to fill the gap now, and plans to review an overhaul of the post-pandemic formula.

“We recognize that there is a need to re-evaluate what exists [funding] methodology,” Woods said. “The pandemic has limited our ability to come in and reevaluate that.”

Los Angeles Times

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