As inflation continues to affect essential goods and services, low-income Californians are grappling with the reality of reduced safety net assistance coverage for basic needs. The value of recent increases in food assistance benefits has fallen significantly—but much-needed annual inflation adjustments will occur in October.
Several times during the pandemic, the federal government bolstered food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—known in California as CalFresh. But these substantial increases have been eroded by inflation in recent months. Nationally, prices for food at home increased 13.1% between July 2021 and July 2022, while overall prices went up by 8.5%. All in all, inflation has cut the value of SNAP increases since 2019 by 76%.
Starting in April 2020, all SNAP participants began receiving the maximum benefit for their family size through monthly emergency allotments. In California, half of all CalFresh households had incomes low enough to receive maximum benefits before the pandemic, so these initial allotments—averaging about $70 per month, based on best estimates of recent issuance—went to relatively better off participants. Benefit increases were extended to lower-income households in April 2021, when the policy was revised to guarantee all families a minimum $95 emergency allotment. California can get emergency allotments as long as both federal and state declarations of emergency remain in place.
The Biden administration increased SNAP benefits by 15% in January 2021, and used American Rescue Plan Act funding to extend the increase through September 2021. Benefit amounts were set to increase by about 27% in October 2021, in accordance with pre-pandemic plans to modernize the calculation of typical food budgets that determine SNAP benefit amounts. The October 2021 increase was substantial enough to measurably reduce child poverty in California. However, as the January 2021 expansion had just expired, the average CalFresh case saw a nominal increase in benefits that month of just 8.7%, or $34.
Nominally, the maximum amount of CalFresh a family could receive grew 30.3% between July 2019 and July 2022, or $153 for a family of three (not including the $95 monthly emergency allotment). Yet inflation also grew dramatically in these years, putting disproportionate pressure on low-income Californians and eroding the value of SNAP increases. Indeed, the October 2021 increase in benefits effectively disappears when we account for inflation: both maximum and average CalFresh benefits in March 2022 were on par with September 2021. And between July 2019 and July 2022, the real value of maximum CalFresh benefits increased just 7.4%—the larger increase in average benefits (42% in May 2022 as compared with July 2019) is due mainly to temporary pandemic-era policies.
CalFresh participants should see some relief in the coming months. SNAP benefits are updated annually to account for inflation, so amounts will increase in October—to reflect inflation between June 2021 and June 2022. At the same time, many stand to lose at least $95 a month in CalFresh when public health emergency declarations are lifted. The state has focused on reaching more Californians in need of food assistance by building on efforts to enroll more eligible participants. The 2022–23 state budget includes resources to plan an expansion of state-funded food assistance to undocumented adults ages 55 and over, with a full rollout envisioned in 2025–26. These efforts—and possibly also federal efforts to address inflation—could help many low-income families cover their food expenses.