As the Trump administration tries to change the way states determine food stamp eligibility, Silicon Valley leaders are fighting back.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted this week to formally oppose planned rule changes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in this state as CalFresh. Under the proposed rules, California would no longer have the ability to grant food subsidies to families whose incomes surpass the federal poverty line—even if their net income after basic expenses and the cost of living in Silicon Valley’s white-hot housing market makes them effectively penniless.
Without the flexibility of granting benefits under the so-called “categorical eligibility” standard, the county estimates that about 7,000 people would lose CalFresh benefits. That includes 1,850 seniors, 2,850 children and 2,300 adults. According to county Supervisor Susan Ellenberg’s referral to oppose the rule changes, as many as 169,000 families in this county experience hunger on a given day.
“Symptoms of food insecurity extend beyond hunger and malnutrition and have substantial impacts on health outcomes and school performance,” her memo reads. “Food assistance programs like SNAP are critical to reducing food insecurity and extending the resources of families, including underpaid workers, to manage other household expenses. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, CalFresh benefits help one in 11 California workers put food on the table.”
Another rule proposed by the federal government would make it harder to “cross-qualify” people for various programs, such as the free and discounted school lunches upon which about 2,000 local children depend. Currently, recipients of Social Security benefits automatically qualify for CalFresh, but the federal government wants to require eligibility checks for each distinct program, which would incur additional paperwork, lengthen processing times and cost local governments more money to administer.
Basically, the pending rules would complicate an already onerous bureaucratic process, according to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley Vice President Tracy Weatherby.
“California is not a huge utilizer of CalFresh,” she says. “We struggle to get enough people to sign up because it’s such a complicated process. This is just another attempt to prevent people from using the benefit program.”
If the changes go into effect, South Bay households receiving CalWorks welfare benefits will no longer become automatically eligible for CalFresh. And their children would no longer qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
“What the president is proposing will literally take food off of our children’s plates,” Ellenberg said in a statement announcing the board vote on Tuesday. “As a county, it is our responsibility to be the safety net to our most vulnerable community members.”
The US Department of Agriculture, however, says that “categorical eligibility” requirements have become a loophole for people who say they need public benefits “when they clearly don’t.” It estimates that 4.1 percent of families currently using SNAP are 4.9 percent above the gross income limit. It also claims that the proposed changes will help families “move towards self-sufficiency.”
Weatherby says that’s doubtful.
“You don’t help people become self-sufficient by removing nutritional support,” she says. “People who are undernourished are not better at finding jobs.”
Now that the board of supes gave it the green light, County Counsel James Williams will send letters of opposition to the US Department of Agriculture and Congress. Meanwhile, Second Harvest is encouraging people to submit comments opposing the controversial rule-change proposal.
The protest against the national powers that be highlights the ongoing local effort to curb hunger in Silicon Valley, where sky-high housing costs leave little left over for many families to cover the bare necessities.
Now that people who receive Supplemental Security Income and State Supplementary Payments (SSI/SSP) are now eligible for Calfresh for the first time in 40 years, the county and Second Harvest have been aggressively pushing for more low-income adults and people with disabilities to sign up for the program.
The county is also launching a new benefits card that’s similar to a debit card for families on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides nutrition and breastfeeding support for impoverished mothers.