California is short on social workers. Here’s how that affects your ability to get benefits

·6 min read

With the pandemic not yet over, millions of California are still relying on CalFresh to help pay for their food.

In August, nearly 250,000 applied for the food stamp benefit, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to data from the California Department of Social Services.

“We’re hearing from some of the counties ... that they’re seeing a huge influx of people enrolling in SNAP because those individuals are looking for additional resources to get by,” said Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate with Nourish California.

County social service departments are responsible for helping residents sign up for the federal program, but advocates say people are struggling to receive benefits because agencies are understaffed and overwhelmed. Some Californians wait hours on the phone to reach a worker who can help them sign up, or wait weeks to receive benefits after applying.

This year’s state budget increased funding to support county social services departments, but advocates say it’s not enough to meet the demand.

Cathy Senderling-McDonald, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, said the state has underfunded those agencies for two decades, leaving them short of more than 6,000 workers who could have helped verify people’s CalFresh eligibility or enroll residents.

Counties in the 2001-02 fiscal year received $231.6 million to administer the program. That figure has jumped to $681 million by this fiscal year, but only due to increases in the number of cases. The number, adjusted for inflation, should be closer to $1.1 billion to fully fund the departments, Senderling-McDonald said.

“In CalFresh, they are still funding us like 2001. It’s pretty wild,” she said.

Food insecurity and CalFresh backlog

The number of California households who struggled to provide food spiked by 22% in the earliest months of the pandemic, according to a study from UCLA.

Although the figure has gone down as more people go back to work, it has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic level. In the Sacramento region, one in six people recently polled by Valley Vision and Capital Public Radio said they have low or very low food security.

Rising food insecurity meant more demands for CalFresh. As of August, the latest month with available data, the program was serving nearly half-million more Californians than it had done before the pandemic. More than 4.5 million people received benefits through CalFresh in August, according to data from the California Department of Social Services.

Hundreds of thousands more who are eligible fail to apply for CalFresh, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

California has tried to make it easier for people to apply for CalFresh, such as creating BenefitsCal, a website launched last month to help Californians get into and manage their programs.

That’s just one part of the system. Counties across the state are thousands short on workers who can verify residents’ benefit eligibility, Senderling-McDonald said.

When California hit a recession in the early 2000s, the state stopped funding cost-of-living increases for those workers as a way to save costs.

“One year turned into two. Two turned into three. And it became a policy and 21 years later, the state just says we don’t fund inflation, and counties just have to figure it out,” said Eileen Cubanski, a senior fiscal and policy analyst for the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

The lack of state investment has meant the counties have also been missing out on the money from the federal government, which provides matching funds, she said. Altogether, the association estimates the system is short of more than $1.1 billion in funding.

Some counties are ponying up on their own to invest in hiring workers, but the gap is simply too large for many to meet, Cubanski said.

“At a certain point, the number got so big that catching up is hard,” Senderling-McDonald said.

Those workers interview applicants, submit paperwork into the state’s system and run it by multiple databases to verify eligibility, Cubanski said. Workers also have to recertify applications on a regular basis.

California has made some progress to close the gap. Legislators talked during the recent years’ state budget process to spend more, though the pandemic has slowed the progress, Cubanski said. She and Senderling-McDonald hope the discussion will resume.

Still, the state increased its funding to counties only by $25 million in this fiscal year. That’s a 4% increase in counties’ budget for administering the program, even as the caseload is projected to grow by about 10%, Senderling-McDonald said..

“Counties can only process so many things in a day,” she said.

Applying for California food stamps

As of today, one in three Sacramento residents — nearly 583,000 people — currently receive some form of government assistance such as CalFresh or Medi-Cal, according to acting director of the county department of human assistance Ethan Dye.

Over the last few years, “DHA has had a relatively small vacancy rate for a department our size,” Dye said in a statement.

But during COVID-19, he said, the department’s job vacancies rose. New hire classes are smaller now due to pandemic distancing requirements.

Training for mainstream public assistance programs such as CalFresh usually takes four months, according to Dye, but then usually takes another eight months for staff to get comfortable with the real-world work and perform at 100%.

All those factors put strains on county departments hoping to roll out benefits as quickly as possible to those in need.

Meanwhile, many counties now enroll residents with interviews over the phone — rather than in-person — because of COVID-19 safety restrictions, Cannon said. That has removed barriers for low-income residents with inflexible work schedules.

But as it became easier for residents to apply, it tipped already overworked county human assistance departments to the brink, Cannon said.

It’s gotten to the point that some community partners report residents wait three to four weeks to receive benefits after applying, Cannon said.

“We’re hearing that with that influx, that our county workers are really overworked now, they’re working overtime,” she said. “They’re doing what they can within their capacity to help people enroll.”

How to apply for CalFresh benefits

For most households, the eligibility threshold for CalFresh is making a gross monthly income less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level — about $4,400 for a family of four or around $2,150 for an individual.

To see if you’re eligible, visit or call the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance at (916)874-3100 or (209)744-0499.

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