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Thousands of SF’s poorest residents could lose access to food stamps

Thousands of low-income residents in San Francisco could lose access to benefits that help them purchase food in grocery stores and at farmers markets due to a work requirement going into effect Sept. 1.

Those aged 18 to 49 who do not have a child living at home will have to start working or officially qualify for an exemption to continue to receive CalFresh benefits for more than three months within a three-year period.

The Human Services Agency, which administers CalFresh, a federal program previously referred to as food stamps, said that nearly 4,000 San Francisco residents could lose their CalFresh benefits on Dec. 1.

For low-income residents, CalFresh is an important resource to maintain a nutritional diet and without it they may have to turn to other resources like food pantries. One in four residents experience hunger in San Francisco.

The work-requirement rule for “able-bodied adults without dependents” dates back to 1996 federal welfare reform initiatives. But San Francisco, like other counties throughout the state, has had a waiver for the work requirement rule since the 2008 Great Recession. Between October 1, 2008 and August 31, 2018 all counties in California were exempt from the federal work requirement.

On Sept. 1, however, the waiver will no longer apply in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, a decision based upon the very low-unemployment rates in these areas. The waiver will continue to apply to the other 55 counties in the state for an additional year.

“It was our hope that the waiver would continue to be extended,” Chandra Johnson, spokesperson for the Human Services Agency, told the San Francisco Examiner Thursday. Now that it’s not, she said the agency is doing what it can to reach out to those most at risk for losing the benefit to help them retain it.

The agency said the federal work requirement rule for “able-bodied adults without dependents” applies to about 15,000 San Francisco residents who are receiving CalFresh benefits, of which 3,900 are “most at risk of losing benefits” because they don’t meet the criteria for an exemption or the work requirements after an initial screening. A total of 50,000 residents in The City are currently receiving CalFresh benefits.

Exemptions for the work requirement are available if the person is homeless, pregnant or enrolled in a drug treatment program.

To meet the work requirement, a person would need to work at least 20 hours per week, an average of 80 hours per month, volunteer 20 hours per week, or participate in a Human Services Agency workfare program.

The California Department of Social Services applies for the waiver to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, which administers the SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which California calls CalFresh. According to last year’s statewide waiver approval, the waiver can be granted for counties with “an unemployment rate of over 10 percent,” or that don’t “have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.”

The state’s application for a year’s extension on the waiver, from September 1, 2018, through August 31, 2019 did not include San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, just the 55 other counties.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website states that “While SNAP is intended to ensure that no one in our land of plenty should fear going hungry, it also reflects the importance of work and responsibility.”

The Human Services Agency’s analysis shows those most impacted by the work requirement live in the neighborhoods with the highest populations of people of color, such as the Bayview and the Mission.

Residents with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for CalFresh. For a single household, that’s income below $24,120, and the person can receive up to $192 a month in CalFresh spending.

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which operates food pantries, said they are monitoring the situation.

Ling Liang, director of programs for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, said that the group has space at some of its pantries for more clients and is waiting to see what happens come December.

While glad to have enjoyed a 10-year reprieve, Liang said she opposed the work requirement. “We think it’s punitive,” she said.

And while San Francisco’s economy is booming, she worries The City is not equipped to help the thousands who now qualify. “I just don’t think we have enough of the job training opportunities,” she said.

Jared Call, managing policy advocate for California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit focused on food policies, said “we are extremely concerned” about the impacts of the waiver’s expiration and noted that the rules are cumbersome and can penalize part-time workers with unpredictable work schedules.

“But no matter how well the county and partners prepare, some people will not be able to navigate the complicated rules and verification requirements, and will lose their food assistance,” Call said. “In a county with such a severe homelessness problem, this is going to make things even worse, not better.”

He added that “being hungrier and poorer doesn’t make it easier to find a job or get more hours. It makes it harder.”

Call said that recent calls by state agencies asking Congress to eliminate the work requirement in the pending 2018 Farm Bill have gone unheeded.

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