California Takes Important Steps on Benefit Access

By Randi Hall

As the California legislature wraps up its session, a number of critical bills that improve access to safety net programs are waiting for Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.  These bills utilize state flexibilities allowed under federal law to improve coordination among CalFresh (the California name for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and Medi-Cal (Medicaid).

  • Sponsored by state Senator De León, SB-1002 would streamline eligibility determinations between Medi-Cal and CalFresh to improve benefits access for low-income Californians. Approximately 35 percent of those enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, are potentially eligible to receive CalFresh benefits, but are not currently enrolled.  Similarly, only 77 percent of CalFresh recipients are enrolled in Medi-Cal despite the health care program’s higher income threshold for eligibility. The bill would direct California to seek federal waivers to use the eligibility information used by each program for the other program. This would build on the current Express Lane Enrollment Project, which uses the temporary authority granted by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to use SNAP eligibility to streamline Medicaid enrollment. To date, over 230,000 CalFresh recipients have been enrolled into Medi-Cal through the project.
  • By allowing improving how administrators identify and verify participation in employment training, AB-1930, authored by Assembly Members Skinner and coauthored by Senator Carol Liu, will ensure that low-income college students in these programs can receive federal food assistance to which they are entitled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 21 percent of students enrolled in college or graduate programs in California fall below the poverty line. Federal law places restrictions on SNAP eligibility for college students, but allows exceptions for students enrolled in employment-focused training.  The bill would require the state Department of Social Services to identify educational programs which would qualify students for this exception and provide guidance on how to verify participation in these programs. 
  • Assembly Member Stone introduced AB-1614, the EBT Protections and Empowerment Act, which would provide CalWORKS and CalFresh recipients with key information about accessing and managing their monthly benefits. The bill would require the EBT system to maintain a 24-hour toll-free hotline for recipients to take their questions about using the EBT system or reporting a theft, and would require county human service agencies to inform individuals how to avoid fees when using an EBT card to withdraw benefits. EBT vendors would also be required to inform recipients and retailers when a system outage is expected to occur for more than one hour.
  • California would join several other states who provide TANF benefits to pregnant women, with no other children, during their 2nd trimester of pregnancy if AB 1579 (Stone) is signed into law.  California currently only provides benefits starting at the 3rd trimester, despite all that is known about the dangers of homelessness and deep poverty to women and fetuses. Proponents of the bill also point out that domestic violence is the number one cause of injury to pregnant women and that, without alternatives, pregnant women are unable to leave abusive environments.
  • Responding to research showing that a TANF sanction does not improve school attendance of poor children and a new report by California’s Attorney General about the role of poverty in increasing truancy rates, AB 2382, authored by the Assembly’s Chairman of the Boys and Men of Color, Assembly Member Bradford, would remove the longstanding TANF sanction for poor school attendance.

The Governor has until September 30 to sign this legislation and, if signed, the new policies would begin implementation by spring of 2015. CLASP urges Governor Brown to sign these bills promptly to expand Californians’ access to key safety net programs work supports. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill exempting individuals with previous histories of drug-related felonies from the federal ban on SNAP and CalWORKs (TANF) benefits. Other bills that advocates fought hard for but did not pass this session included a proposal to help impoverished families pay for diapers, and the repeal of the “Maximum Family Grant” rule (also known as a child exclusion or family cap), which denies additional financial support to children born into families receiving cash assistance under CalWORKs.