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Just the FACTS

The CalFresh Food Assistance Program

    • CalFresh is the largest food assistance program.
      The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—called CalFresh in California and sometimes known as food stamps—is the largest food assistance program in the nation. Together with the school meals and WIC programs, CalFresh provides a nutrition safety net for low-income Californians. An average of 4.1 million Californians living in 2.0 million households received CalFresh benefits each month in federal fiscal year 2017. Each participant received, on average, $136 a month toward household grocery costs. Overall, Californians received slightly more than $6.7 billion in federal SNAP benefits, or 10.6% of the total national spending. California has a small state-funded program ($63 million anticipated for state fiscal year 2017–18) to assist noncitizen legal permanent residents who are ineligible for federal benefits. In 2015 (the most recent estimate), 70% of eligible Californians received benefits, including 57% of those in working families.
    • The federal government underwrites most SNAP benefits.
      In addition to funding most of SNAP, the federal government determines how benefits change with household incomes and sets other key rules. The state determines some aspects of eligibility and oversees county administration of the program. Income eligibility is pegged to the federal poverty line. In 2017, a family of four with an annual adjusted income less than about $24,500—after deductions for expenses such as housing and child care—could qualify for SNAP. Unlike many safety net programs, the program is not just targeted at families with children; households with no children made up almost half of the total in 2016.
    • SNAP improves health, enhances self-sufficiency, and alleviates food insecurity.
      Research shows that after the initial rollout of food stamps in the 1960s, birth weights increased and there were lower rates of diet-related illnesses (including diabetes and obesity) among adults who had access to the program at young ages. This same research indicates improved economic self-sufficiency among women exposed to the program as children. A USDA analysis of the federal increase in benefits during the recent recession finds that it lowered food insecurity among low-income households by 9%.
    • CalFresh plays a major role in mitigating poverty in California.
      In 2015, CalFresh moved roughly 800,000 Californians out of poverty, according to the California Poverty Measure (CPM), which accounts for regional variations in the cost of living. By boosting family resources, CalFresh lowered the CPM poverty rate by 2.1 percentage points, more than any other safety net program. The program lowered child poverty by an average of 4.0 percentage points (363,000 children) statewide. Coastal counties tend to see smaller effects, perhaps because the federal poverty line (FPL) is a barrier to eligibility—56% of Californians live in counties where the CPM poverty line is at least 125% of FPL. Among all those receiving CalFresh during 2015, 87.6% had at least one family member who worked for some or all of that year.

CalFresh moves more than 800,000 Californians out of poverty

figure - CalFresh moves more than 800,000 Californians out of poverty

SOURCE: California Poverty Measure data for 2013–15.

NOTES: Numbers are rounded to the nearest 100 and indicate those with family resources under the CPM poverty line if CalFresh is excluded from the calculation. Counties whose poverty rates cannot be calculated individually are grouped. All estimates are subject to uncertainty due to sampling variability; uncertainty is greater for less-populous counties and county groups because of smaller sample sizes. Asterisks indicate counties with fewer than 2,000 children in the sample. Children are age 0–17 and adults are 18 or older. All family members (not just direct recipients) are assumed to share resources from CalFresh and other sources. For more about the CPM, see our poverty fact sheet. For more county-level information and for poverty rates by state assembly, state senate, and federal congressional districts, see our data page.

    • CalFresh costs rose during the recession and have dropped since 2015.
      During and after the Great Recession, annual benefit costs grew rapidly from about $3 billion to about $8 billion. This was due to several factors: increased eligibility when jobs were scarce, successful efforts to improve California’s low rate of participation among those eligible for CalFresh, and a temporary federal increase in benefits between 2009 and 2013. The decline in benefit costs since 2015—including a 9.6% drop from 2016 to 2017—largely reflects an improving economy.

CalFresh benefits grew dramatically when need was high and as participation rates rose

figure - CalFresh benefits grew dramatically when need was high and as participation rates rose

SOURCES: USDA, Food and Nutrition Service, SNAP data; USDA, Food and Nutrition Service, SNAP participation rate reports, various years.

NOTES: Federal fiscal years shown. Dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation to 2017 using the CPI-U West. Participation rates estimate the share of eligible residents who participated in SNAP during a given fiscal year; the latest available data is for 2015. When participation estimates for a given year vary across reports, the most recent estimate is shown.

  • Changes may be in store at both state and federal levels.
    California faces the end of a statewide waiver of federal work requirements in 2018; this will severely restrict CalFresh eligibility for childless working-age participants who are not employed at least part-time. The federal Farm Bill, which includes SNAP, is due for reauthorization in 2018. Lawmakers may look to contain federal costs. Other long-standing issues include whether benefits are adequate to support a nutritious diet and how best to support good nutritional choices among program participants.


Sources: Author analysis of SNAP QC data files; Hoynes et al., “Long-Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net,” American Economic Review 106(4); Hoynes et al., “US Food and Nutrition Programs” (NBER working paper 21057); Oliveira et al., Design Issues in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Nord and Prell, Food Security Improved Following the 2009 ARRA Increase in SNAP Benefits (Economic Research Service, USDA).


Caroline DanielsonCaroline Danielson
Policy Director and Senior Fellow
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