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California Makes Progress Towards Full SSI Enrollment in CalFresh

octubre 9, 2023

The expansion of CalFresh benefits to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients in 2019 was the biggest increase in program eligibility in decades. Thanks to the Californianos 4 SSI coalition’s dedicated advocacy and leadership from the Legislature and Governor, we reversed a decades-old policy that excluded low-income older adults and people with disabilities from enrolling in vital CalFresh benefits. Implementation required a year of highly collaborative multi-stakeholder planning in which SSI recipients, advocates, CalFresh application assisters, counties, and state agency staff came together to ensure a thoughtful and effective roll-out. 

Maximizing enrollment of SSI recipients in CalFresh is one of the most effective methods to improve food security for low-income older adults and people with disabilities in California. With that in mind, CAFB has analyzed datasets provided by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to assess the success of implementation of the policy change. Our review of February 2023 data revealed the following findings:

Progress toward “full” enrollment continues to be incredibly strong.

More than 700,000 SSI recipients (61%) in California can now purchase food with CalFresh, with annualized benefits totaling over $1.24 billion. Enrollment increased by 20% (~119,000 people) compared to our last review of CDSS data in June 2021. Enrollment rates increased in every county.

Baseline benefit levels are up.

Program participants now receive an average of $146 per person per month in baseline benefits, up from $88 per month in June 2021. This marked increase reflects the changes in federal benefit level calculations to better reflect participant needs. Unfortunately, these levels are still inadequate to meet people’s needs, and the sunsetting in March of this year of the pandemic-era emergency allotments (provided in addition to the baseline benefit levels) resulted in a massive net decrease in monthly benefits that many households found to be catastrophic. 

Enrollment remains well below the national average.

CalFresh enrollment rates for SSI are still below the national average (66%, excluding California). Increasing California’s enrollment rate to 66% would result in nearly $1 billion in additional food benefits. If California became a top 10 state in terms of enrollment (e.g., enrollment rate of 75%+), the benefits would be far greater. One county (San Francisco) has already exceeded that rate; CAFB believes that it is also possible at the state level.

Outreach needs to be targeted to improve equity.

Some SSI sub-populations are enrolled at notably lower rates than others. The largest group with a major gap in enrollment rates is Spanish speakers. Our updated dashboard provides summaries of enrollment opportunities statewide and by county.

Looking Ahead: Our Recommendations to increase SSI Enrollment in CalFresh 

Full CalFresh enrollment of eligible SSI recipients will require dedicated efforts in outreach, policy refinement, and operational improvement. These short- and long-term recommendations are largely focused on areas that will need strong leadership from CDSS and the California legislature, as well as federal partners at the USDA and Congress, in partnership with county administrators and advocates. We must:

1. Set our sights on becoming a leading state for SSI enrollment in CalFresh benefits.

20% of states have enrollment rates of 75% or higher for SSI recipients. Given the rapid increase of enrollment of this population in California over the last four years, the state should maintain momentum and set an attainable but ambitious target.

2. Invest in targeted outreach and support for enrollment of Spanish-speaking SSI recipients.

Enrollment of Spanish speakers has increased over the last year, but remains troublingly low. Successful enrollment of Spanish speaking SSI recipients will require targeted communications campaigns, along with culturally relevant application assistance.

3. Learn more about the specific challenges that counties with low enrollment face.

Enrollment rates of SSI recipients vary significantly by county. Some counties have enrollment rates that are 10% or more lower than the state rate. CDSS should work with those counties to address barriers to SSI recipient enrollment.

4. Increase the value of CalFresh so it is worth the effort of applying.

Permanently expand and authorize California’s CalFresh Minimum Nutrition Benefit Pilot Program so that all CalFresh recipients receive a minimum CalFresh benefit of $50. Improve benefit adequacy federally through the Closing the Meal Gap Act: (H.R. 3037 (Adams) / S. 1336 (Gillibrand)

Support dignity and choice for CalFresh recipients by allowing the purchase of hot and prepared foods though the federal Hot Foods Act: H.R. 3519 (Meng) / S. 2258 (Bennet)

5. Streamline the CalFresh application process for SSI recipients. 

CalFresh application denial rates for the SSI population have often been as low as 15%, but they have climbed as high as 26% in February 2023, with many denials attributed to procedural, not eligibility reasons.

Streamline the CalFresh application process for SSI recipients federally by allowing and encouraging states to participate in the Combined Application Project.

Prioritize making specific improvements to California’s BenefitsCal system for older adults and people with disabilities, who often face the greatest barriers to successfully navigating online application platforms.

For additional details, please check out these resources:

  • Read the two-page summary aquí.
  • Use the interactive data dashboard aquí
  • Read our 2022 report here for more information about the multi-stakeholder planning and implementation.

If you are interested in joining the Californians for SSI Coalition to continue advocating to ensure Supplemental Security Income recipients can live in dignity please contact

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