The ‘Benefit Cliff”

Gary’s tale is common: Her dreams for the new year were dashed three months in. Her company canceled her full-time work offer after the COVID-19 epidemic hit, causing lockdowns and social isolation.

She, like many others, was now unemployed and receiving assistance from the state’s unemployment insurance program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (CalFresh). The nutrition program, formerly known as food stamps, helps low-income households buy food if they qualify.

Mary requested anonymity owing to the stigma surrounding government aid.

Governments developed support programs to help individuals cope with the economic effects of lockdown and social isolation, which resulted in widespread job losses.

They passed bigger child tax deductions, higher unemployment benefits, and increased SNAP benefits to assist families to make ends meet. These enhanced aid programs will eventually be gone, leaving people facing a benefit cliff and a return to pre-pandemic challenges.

Mary believes her family has benefited the most from the new CalFresh SNAP benefits.

The USDA, which supervises SNAP, permitted states to increase benefit amounts up to the maximum allowed for all users in March 2020. The COVID-19 emergency allotments.

Mary and her family now receive around $300 more per month in CalFresh SNAP payments thanks to the emergency allowance. She says she can buy more staples like rice and beans in bulk, allowing her to buy more organic fruits and vegetables for tastier meals.
To make spaghetti with tomato sauce, Mary advises, “you can add a lot of veggies or none.” “Kids need that extra flavor, texture — something more than a make-ends-meet dinner.”

Many other CalFresh SNAP recipients are in the same boat.

Steven Pera, of the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka, spoke to a few CalFresh recipients about the additional benefits. He says everyone was grateful for the raise, and that most could buy more food without worrying about stretching their benefits for the entire month.

The 'Benefit Cliff"

Pera says one neighbor said she could finally buy more organic items at the North Coast Co-Op, something she couldn’t do before the emergency allotments. When the allotments run out, he says she’ll have to buy cheaper food, eat poorly, and rely on local food charities.

The average American household spends $4,942 on groceries every year, or $412 per month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The emergency allotments follow a federal declaration of emergency by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

He extended the emergency declaration in January, but with everything seemingly returning to normal, many anticipate it will not be renewed, ending the additional benefits and Mary’s more substantial meals.

So Mary and her family would get the pre-pandemic CalFresh benefits of around $358 per month, or less than $13 per day to feed three people.

CalFresh SNAP eligibility is based on household size and income. To be eligible for SNAP assistance, a household’s gross monthly income must not exceed the federal poverty limit.

It must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. A single person cannot earn more than $2,148 per month, a couple cannot earn more than $2,784 per month, and a family of three cannot earn more than $3,660 per month or $43,920 per year.

People receiving CalFresh benefits who perform well enough at work to receive a raise, or who obtain a new job with a higher wage, may be pushed over the edge of eligibility.

“The rigor of the eligibility standards is terrible,” says Heidi McHugh, a 10-year Food for People employee and community educator.

Consider a family of four getting $300 per month in CalFresh SNAP benefits when one of the adults receives a $100 raise before taxes. The extra income means the family is no longer eligible for the $300 monthly CalFresh subsidy, thus the adult’s rise actually costs the family $200 each month to pay for food and other requirements.

Other programs like MediCAL and childcare subsidies may also be affected. The “benefits cliff” forces workers to forgo raises or promotions because they cannot afford them.

“Their income is too high to qualify, but they cannot afford basic necessities,” McHugh says. “People must choose between food, healthcare, telephone, and utilities. All of this stems from the fact that the program was dubbed the ‘Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.’

The notion was that it was supplemental — but it isn’t a supplement when it is some families’ only source of food.” “There’s a mile between safety net eligibility and self-sufficiency,” says McHugh.

If a household qualifies, the benefit amount is next determined.

According to Appolonia Coan of the Humboldt County Department of Social Services, only a county eligibility specialist can evaluate a person’s (or family’s) CalFresh SNAP benefits.

They start by counting households – how many individuals live together. Then they subtract basic household expenses like rent, childcare, and utilities from the gross household income.

No dollar for dollar, argues Coan. Instead, they’re based on a household’s income — how much they should be spending on necessities like housing and electricity.

The 'Benefit Cliff"

“So, if two people have the same rent but different earnings, they won’t always get the same budget deduction,” Coan argues.

The maximum expense deduction allowed for each CalFresh case without a disabled or senior household member is now $569. The maximum deduction is the same in all 48 states and Washington, D.C., including California.

However, housing costs vary by state and county. On the other hand, some sections of the state — like Los Angeles and the Bay Area — have much higher rents ranging from $2,600 to $2,800, according to the Humboldt Economic Index.

A household’s net income is then used to calculate how much CalFresh a household will get, under statutory minimum and maximum amounts.

A home of one person cannot receive more than $250 per month, a household of two cannot receive more than $459 per month, and a household of three cannot receive more than $658 per month. A single-adult household’s minimal benefit is just $20.

Eligibility specialists utilize that chart (and an online system) to compute a household’s benefit level, which fluctuates depending on income, household size, and deductions.

As a result of this, it’s impossible to guess your eligibility. (Applying is the best way to determine eligibility, according to Coan.)

Less impacted by the impending end of COVID-19 emergency allotments will be those who were receiving the minimum permitted allotments because they were granted the maximum allowable benefit for all households.

For example, a single-adult household that previously received $20 in benefits now receives $250, and those already receiving the maximum received an extra $90.

As a result of the cancellation of the COVID-19 emergency allotments, Mary is frightened of going back into “survival mode.”

“These emergency allotments are related to the government designation of public health emergency and will no longer happen once it is withdrawn,” adds McHugh.

The Humboldt County CalFresh Task Force keeps community organizations and food banks informed of changes to CalFresh and SNAP policies including the COVID-19 enhanced emergency allotments.

She also supports SNAP policy improvements to help more families in need.

The loss of these emergency benefit increases will be devastating for seniors and disabled persons who rely on fixed incomes from Social Security or other sources, says McHugh.

“Their [Social Security and supplemental] income isn’t going to increase, so they’ve been getting this (emergency) amount,” she says. “It’s sad. Everyone wants the pandemic to end, but for this group, it means returning to a life of poverty.”

Despite the conclusion of the emergency declaration in mid-April, Coan says the COVID-19 emergency allocation will extend until June.

According to Christine Messinger of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, 23,054 people were receiving CalFresh in December 2021. This is around 1 in 4 Humboldt County households (13,550).

Messinger notes that in Humboldt County, 29% of beneficiaries are under 18, 55% are between 19 and 59, and 16% are over 60.

Coan estimates the average per-person benefit in Humboldt County at $166. It increased to $264 per person with the COVID-19 emergency allocations, she said.

“On average, it gives these households around $98 extra,” Coan explains. “Many folks obtain a large portion of their benefits from the emergency allotment.”

In 2021, Humboldt County families got $62.6 million in CalFresh payments, $22.3 million of which came from emergency allotments.

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The extra $22.3 million in local spending undoubtedly freed up some beneficiaries’ fund

s that would have been spent on food for other priorities.

If California wasn’t one of the most costly states in the country, McHugh argues these types of perks and programs wouldn’t exist. McHugh claims they CalFresh SNAP system calculates benefits using outdated metrics.

The Insight Center, a national economic justice organization, assessed the cost of living in California and found that childcare is the biggest household expense in 53 of the state’s 58 counties, with the other five in the Bay Area having the state’s highest housing expenses.

It also revealed that having one child nearly doubles the likelihood of a married pair being financially precarious and that a single parent with two children needs an hourly pay ranging from $27 in rural counties in the state’s northeast to roughly $74 in the Bay Area.

the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington to assess the cost of being a Californian. It’s a “bare-bones” formula that determines how much a family needs to earn to cover basic necessities without public help like CalFresh.

The criteria include family composition, ages of children, regional housing, child care, healthcare, and transportation costs, as well as incidental costs, taxes, and tax credits.

(The official poverty measure mainly considers food prices.) The benchmark was computed for 41 states and Washington, D.C., including Humboldt County.

In Humboldt, a single-adult household must earn at least $25,977 to be deemed self-sufficient. A family-like Mary’s with one adult and two teenagers would need to earn $19.98 per hour, or $3,517 per month, or $42,199 annually to make ends meet.

The Insight Center reported that 41% of Humboldt County households are below the Self-Sufficiency Standard, double the official poverty rate of 19%.

“It’s not food, but money,” McHugh explains. “I spend a lot of time promoting this (CalFresh) program. It’s the best approach to fight hunger, but it’s not occurring.”

For now, McHugh only hopes the feds will raise benefits to keep up with rising costs.

Last year, the Biden administration increased SNAP benefits by 30%. This is a little step forward for McHugh. However, emergency allotments have helped households buy better food.

McHugh advises CalFresh recipients to contact their local officials and express their gratitude for the COVID-19 emergency allotments in hopes of changing the benefit allocations to reflect the state’s rising cost of living.

“The more people who know about it, the better chance we have of changing,” she says. “Say it.”