The federal Farm Bill is due for reauthorization in Congress, but its fate is still uncertain—Senate and House versions differ substantially. The largest share of spending in—and the most contentious aspect of—the bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh in California. CalFresh is the state’s main food assistance program, helping nearly 4 million Californians afford groceries each month. The Senate bill leaves net SNAP funding largely unchanged. The House bill would trim costs significantly, in part by revamping work requirements and limiting state flexibility in setting eligibility guidelines. These changes, which would reduce the number of program recipients, are being proposed at a time when the SNAP caseload is declining nationwide, after growing substantially during and after the Great Recession.
In California, policymakers have focused in recent years on getting more eligible Californians enrolled in CalFresh—the state had the lowest participation rate in the nation for a number of years. The share of those eligible who received benefits grew from about 50% to 70% between 2009 and 2015 (the most recent estimate)—but this improved participation rate is still near the bottom. Nonetheless, the California Poverty Measure estimates that CalFresh benefits kept more than 800,000 residents out of poverty in 2015.
Even as participation rates have been rising, decreases in demand are causing CalFresh benefit costs to fall—from $7.4 billion to $6.7 between 2016 and 2017 alone. Whether or not federal policies change, program costs are likely to continue to fall in the next year—unless the state enters a recession and the need for food assistance rises.