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There is Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Increasing California’s Food Stamp Participation Rate

March 18, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

At a California Senate Human Services Committee hearing held last Tuesday in Sacramento, the latest data were presented on the effect of growing up in poverty. According to researchers from the University of California at Davis, children who grow up in poverty have poorer academic performance, have poorer physical health, poorer mental health, and lower IQ than children from families with higher socioeconomic status. The cause of this is the chronic stress experienced by children who grown up in poverty actually alters their neurobiology.

That is bad news for California, which, according to the US Census Bureau Supplemental Poverty Measure, is the state with the highest level of poverty in America. A full 23.4 percent of Californians live below the poverty line. For a family of three, that means living on an income of $18,300 annually.

What can we do about it? A good first step is taking advantage of underutilized resources, namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. This federally funded program provides low-income individuals with an average of $150 per individual and $335 per household each month to purchase food. For a family of three living at the poverty level, this level of support would boost their monthly household income by 22 percent.

Despite the tremendous assistance food stamps can provide, evidence was presented at the hearing that food stamps remain underutilized. According to USDA data, California has the lowest food stamp participation rate in the country: just 55% of eligible persons receive food stamp benefits. California’s performance is even worse when it comes to ensuring the working poor receive access to food stamps. Again, California ranks dead last in the nation, with just 42% of eligible working poor receiving benefits. This is money literally sitting there for poor families—all California Counties need to get that money into the hands of these parents and their children.

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