Food bank operators worry that changes to federal benefit eligibility requirements will leave more Californians hungry. Photo courtesy Second Harvest of Silicon Valley


Millions of people receiving food benefits could lose out under proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including many in San Mateo County. 

Alongside several other measures to limit who is eligible for government programs, the Trump administration’s proposed changes to what is called “broad-based” categorical eligibility means 3.1 million people would lose their food assistance.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey estimates there are about 5,000 people in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero with incomes making them at risk of losing benefits. 

People who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income or other state-financed general assistance programs are eligible for food benefits under a provision known as “categorical eligibility.” 

“Those currently categorically eligible households with incomes and resources above federal limits will lose eligibility for SNAP since they would not be eligible under federal income and resource rules,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulatory impact analysis states. 

Broad-based categorical eligibility allows states to consider low-income households, which are at or under 200 percent of the poverty level, for SNAP or CalFresh in California. Normally, households can only be screened if they’re at 130 percent of the poverty level under federal law. 

It also lets states opt out of the asset limits when screening applicants to allow people to save money without it affecting their food benefits.

“Under broad-based categorical eligibility, you can screen people up to 200 percent to evaluate deductions to see if it brings them under the 100 percent,” said Tracy Weatherby, vice president of advocacy and strategy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. “It’s particularly important around here, where housing and childcare are incredibly high.”

Although a household may be eligible for CalFresh under broad-based categorical eligibility, “its net income may be too high to actually receive a SNAP benefit,” a congressional research service report updated on Aug. 1 stated.

Many low-income households in California receive California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids benefits (CalWORKs), the state version of temporary assistance, making them categorically eligible for CalFresh. This aid can take a variety of forms, including cash or non-cash benefits. 

The  minimum CalWORKs benefit of an informational pamphlet makes a household eligibile for CalFresh screening.  

The new rule would require people to receive at least $50 a month for six months from CalWORKs to be categorically eligible. It limits non-cash benefits to subsidized employment, work support, such as transportation benefits, or childcare subsidies and vouchers. Brochures would no longer make a household categorically eligible. 

The USDA has said these changes would close a loophole in the program and save the government $1.8 billion each year for the next five years.

Only 5.7 percent of SNAP households are above 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the congressional research report. In California, only 3.8 percent of CalFresh households reach that level of income. 

“If this rule were to be finalized, it would be devastating for hunger in California,” said Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs for the California Association of Food Banks. “It is an option that allows us to screen working families, seniors, people with disabilities who have high expenses on just basic necessities.” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regulatory Impact Analysis said this loss would hit hardest in households with elderly people, working adults and those without children. It also found that 17.2 million households might still be eligible for SNAP, but that these applicants would “face additional burdens associated with the application process.”

“There is tremendous awareness and tremendous confusion and a huge amount of fear,” Weatherby said. 

Students who receive free or reduced-price meals in the National School Lunch Program could lose their status under the proposed changes as well. 

The Department of Agriculture has not officially released numbers on how many students could be affected.

The average qualifying household receives more than $300 a month in CalFresh benefits, a little more than $10 a day for food. 

“Hunger is the new normal in California, whether it’s the high cost of housing, the natural disasters that have rocked communities across the state or even man-made crises like the federal shutdown,” Cheyne said. “We’ve seen families one step away from hunger … because CalFresh benefits don’t last the month.”

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