CalFresh is one of California’s largest safety net programs, providing food assistance to 4.8 million residents. Policymakers seeking to strengthen the link between safety net participation and economic mobility could benefit from a better understanding of the job and income instability faced by program participants. At a virtual event last week, PPIC’s Tess Thorman and Caroline Danielson discussed recent research on CalFresh enrollment before and during the COVID crisis, participants’ ties to the workforce, and the program’s role in stabilizing family budgets.
As Danielson noted, CalFresh could have an even larger reach. About 6.5 million Californians are eligible to receive benefits, and while enrollment has increased in recent years, it remains in the bottom third across US states. “We could know more about the share of Californians who are essentially never accessing the program even though they are eligible versus the share of Californians who are intermittently accessing it,” she added.
Research has shown that many Californians do not access CalFresh immediately after they become eligible. “About half have at least a period in the year before they join CalFresh during which they have no income from the sources we tracked,” said Danielson. Moreover, many apparently still-eligible participants exit CalFresh at the six-month income reporting mark.
Danielson noted that CalFresh is a key counter-recessionary tool. “It’s a targeted means of reaching low-income individuals who are sharply affected by recessions,” she said, “and it also supports aggregate demand.”
Several policies were altered to facilitate access during the pandemic. For example, income reporting requirements were paused, work requirements were suspended, and eligibility rules for college students were eased. Danielson noted that many of these policy innovations were driven by the nature of the COVID-19 crisis. “For example,” she added, “the paperwork pause that may have helped people keep their benefits . . . was in part prompted by shutdowns that made it difficult to do that kind of paperwork.” However, a longer-term effort to simplify income reporting could reduce the number of still-eligible participants who drop out.
Thorman stressed that the goal of recent PPIC research on income and job instability is to provide a context for CalFresh policymaking. For example, “it can be surprising to learn that so many CalFresh participants are working,” she said. “One of the takeaways from this is that it needs to be possible for people to keep their jobs and be able to get and keep CalFresh benefits.”
Thorman also noted that the finding that single, childless adults enrolled in CalFresh are more likely to experience income instability and are less connected to the labor market than other participants is initially surprising in light of broader labor market trends. However, since most safety net programs target specific groups, such as families with children, it makes sense that single adult participants would be relatively worse off: “CalFresh is one of the few safety net programs that single adults can be eligible for,” she said. Given this finding, she added, “policymakers could be looking for additional ways to reach and help this group.”