Why aren’t locals collecting the food assistance for which they’re eligible?
Despite the area’s reputation as a place people migrate to for handouts, far fewer people in Santa Cruz County are receiving CalFresh benefits, or food stamps, than are eligible for them.
The city and county governments, in partnership with community organizers, are ramping up efforts to make sure people living in one of the most expensive areas in the United States get the help they need. Nearly 15 percent of the county currently lives below the poverty line, according to the United States Census average from 2009-14.
However, the number of Santa Cruzans receiving food stamps lagged below 8 percent until 2012, according to calbudgetcenter.org. This number jumped over the 10 percent mark this year, in large part because of a campaign to help people find benefits they are entitled to, launched by the Benefits Collaborative Campaign, made up of city and county officials and 26 non-profit organizations.
“You obviously have a lot of people who are struggling,” says County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “A lot of attention goes to the homeless and the mentally ill. And it should. But a lot of these other people get missed.”
People can receive these benefits with an income up to double the poverty line—which is judged as $20,000 for a family of three—Coonerty says. A couple with one child is lucky if they can rent a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz for that price, even if they had no other life expenses, like, say, food.
Coonerty says he wants to see that struggling middle-class families in the county are not forgotten amidst other persistent voices. The benefit eligibility income limit being $40,000 per year for a family of three still leaves many who fall between there and the $57,000 salary—which is considered a living, or self-sustaining wage in this area—without help.
A large piece of the project has been to have the process streamlined. They have come up with some huge advances, including a “telephonic signature” for the CalFresh application process.
“[The nonprofits] use recorders while they take calls from applicants,” says Santa Cruz County Human Services Department Senior Health Manager Leslie Goodfriend. “Their voice on the recording acts as their application signature when it gets referred to us to judge eligibility.”
Before this innovation, the process could take weeks. A person submitted an application, waited for a phone call or letter, came in to the HSD offices for an interview, and often had to come back for a second meeting to provide the proper paperwork if they did not have it all lined up from the start. This whole process could take weeks, and put pressure on the county workers handling the claims to meet their own deadlines to approve or decline an application.
“This also helps with homeless people who are trying to get CalFresh who may not be able to get to the Emeline office,” Goodfriend says. “This has cut down on our no-shows for appointments and sped up the process.”
Every group in the Benefits Collaborative Campaign is also using the Internet to narrow the nearly two-to-one divide between those in poverty and those receiving food assistance.
Until this outreach push, groups that distribute food privately, such as Second Harvest Food Bank, were seeing their lines grow over the years, knowing that many of them could get CalFresh benefits if the system were simplified. Now mybenefitscalwin.org is picking up some of the slack. Groups including Live Oak Community Resource Center, Mountain Family Resource Center in San Lorenzo Valley, and the La Manzana Community Resource Center in Watsonville have been leading people through this site to expedite their applications, which are automatically forwarded to the Health Services Department to be approved or declined.
“The [nongovernmental organizations] said it was complicated, and wanted to provide assistance to people using this site,” says Goodfriend. “They can also lead them through the process of getting health insurance at the same time using mybenefitscalwin.org or coveredcalifornia.gov since they have all the necessary information at the time.”
The disparity of people living below the federal poverty line versus those receiving nutritional
assistance looks more grim when the relative cost of living in Santa Cruz is added into the equation.
Goodfriend and Coonerty say it’s sometimes a challenge just convincing people that they are eligible for CalFresh. The stigma attached to any form of welfare is alive here, and many people don’t want others to know they get help when they are paying for groceries. The switch from paper food stamps to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards identical to debit cards has made many more comfortable with the idea.
There are a number of myths attached to food stamps, and the Human Services Department has been distributing flyers attempting to clear up these misconceptions to partner groups. The flyer’s first attack is on the word “welfare” itself—Santa Cruzans are apparently not immune from the American instinct to grow queasy at that word.
“Myth: CalFresh is a welfare program,” the flyer reads. “Truth: CalFresh is a nutrition assistance program designed to help individuals and families buy nutritious food when money is tight.”
Another myth is that people with jobs are ineligible. Given the income limits for qualifying—$1,915 per month for a single person, $3,255 for a family of three—many more than the 14 percent of Santa Cruz residents living in poverty are eligible.
PHOTO: STAMP ON Santa Cruz officials are trying to help people get food stamps.