With a full class load on her shoulders, Carlina—a 35-year-old full-time San Jose State student who asked to withhold her last name—needs a part-time job with enough hours to qualify for food stamps but enough time to spare to focus on her studies.
It’s a juggling act that will only become harder if the Trump administration imposes stricter work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, food stamps or—in California—CalFresh.
Earlier this month marked the end of a public comment period for what would be the third rule change for SNAP, a proposal that stands to cut the nutrition benefits for at least a few million people.
The Trump administration's logic for the policy change? To incentivize self-reliance by closing a loophole that gives states flexibility to waive certain asset and income caps for people who receive both SNAP and other welfare benefits. Most states, including California, exercise such waivers to streamline safety-net services that may have disparate eligibility requirements.
US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the planned rule revision a no-brainer. “Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” he declared in a prepared statement earlier this year.
Critics of the move, however, say that far from making people more independent, the safety-net decree would leave millions more people hungry and desperate in a state that already struggles to enroll everyone who’s eligible for nutritional help. According to the California Department of Social Services, about 1.6 million people—or about 28 percent of those who qualify for CalFresh—don’t receive it.
With their meager or fixed incomes, college students, Carlina among them, and senior citizens are the most likely to miss out on the benefits.
Things were looking up for Carlina when she moved to San Jose a few years ago to re-enroll in college. Though she didn’t make much from her non-profit work, she had food stamps to get her from paycheck to paltry paycheck. But a chain of events that began in the fall of 2018 upended Carlina’s tenuous footing.
Just weeks after moving into a new spot, she lost her part-time non-profit gig, which put her food stamps in jeopardy. She had barely finished applying for unemployment benefits when a car crash changed her fortunes for the worse yet again. The head-on collision left her with a concussion and several other injuries, including a broken left foot and damage to her right hip socket and right knee. For months to follow, Carlina was unable to walk and had to undergo physical therapy.
The series of unfortunate events unfolded right around the time the federal government began plotting its overhaul of SNAP assistance. Under a rule change proposed last year and still pending final approval, able-bodied and childless SNAP recipients such as Carlina would need to work at least 20 hours a week to maintain the benefits.
Even without the new federal standards, staying enrolled in SNAP proved challenging, requiring a significant amount of time and meticulous record-keeping.
“I had three different caseworkers in a year, year-and-a-half, so I had to keep reintroducing myself and resending proof that I was enrolled in school full time, and that I was working,” Carlina says.
Then there’s the uncertainty about how much she’d get each month, depending on whether she switched jobs or made more or less than in previous pay cycles. “Which is really hard,” she says. “It’s sort of keeping you in the same place, so it’s really hard to get out of that hole when you have to be in the hole to get help to begin with.”
Thankfully, Carlina says she had SJSU’s Spartan Food Pantry to fall back on when her public benefits lapsed or fell short of covering all her meals. “I was in a gap,” she says, “where there was no other help for me.”
Bridging the Gap
State data shows that just 5 percent of California State University students in 2016 obtained food stamps even though five times as many were eligible and 35 percent reported going hungry. Meanwhile, just 19 percent of California’s senior citizens received nutritional assistance compared to 42 percent nationwide. And for immigrants who fall into those two categories, the barriers are even greater.
California’s low SNAP enrollment makes it somewhat of an outlier among Western states. Oregon and Washington, for example, have enrolled nearly every eligible person for SNAP, according to federal data from 2016.
In Silicon Valley, where the staggering cost of living eats up inordinate shares of people’s incomes, the need has only intensified in recent years, according to Tracy Weatherby, vice president of strategy and advocacy for Second Harvest Food Bank. “Even though the economy has gotten better, the number of people reaching out to help us has stayed about the same or gone up,” she says.
On a local level, at least, Santa Clara County’s elected supervisors are trying to bridge the food stamp enrollment gap and overcome barriers that prevent people from getting the help to which they’re entitled.
Supervisor Dave Cortese says the county has been “monitoring or responding to several cuts or threats to safety net services and public health services across the board” from the federal government, including to food stamps. The cutbacks, he says, stem from a broader push by conservative lawmakers to gut social safety services.
“There are members of the US Senate who don’t believe in public education,” he says, “let alone a public safety net.”
With more than $1.7 billion in federal aid at risk—about $1 billion of that is for health and human services—Cortese says the county is “reserving as much as we can in our contingent reserves to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
“What the county’s been doing is trying to make sure we stand to backfill those areas as much as possible,” he says. However, he adds, “We’d never be able to backfill all of it.”
One segment of the population that’s particularly vulnerable to hunger are community college students, some of whom lack access to a campus food pantry like the one at SJSU. Cortese says he’s also been pushing for a universal basic income pilot that would dispense cash payments to 18- to 21-year-olds phasing out of foster care to “use as needed, whether it’s food anxiety or augmenting your rent or a little bit of each,” he explains.
The program for transitional-age former foster youth targets just a tiny subset of county residents but has the advantage of bypassing federal poverty levels, work requirements and other administrative hurdles that prevent people from accessing CalFresh.
“The goal is to try to create assistance that does not have strings attached,” Cortese says, “and that’s not so prescriptive and difficult to use.”
Julia Baum’s reporting on food access and food insecurity was undertaken as a USC Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellow.