Senator Wiener Introduces Bills to Strengthen Food Access and Employment Programs to Better Serve and Protect Low-Income Residents

Two bills introduced today – SB 278 and SB 282 – will both improve the state’s CalFresh program which distributes federal food assistance funds and provides employment and training assistance, while also protecting recipients from gross negligence by gove
February 9, 2017

Contact: Jeff Cretan, jeff.cretan@sen.ca.gov

Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced two bills to strengthen food access and employment and training programs for low-income residents, while also protecting recipients from any gross negligence by government administration. Senate Bill 278 will make CalFresh, the state’s federal nutrition assistance program, more cost-effective while protecting recipients who might be affected by major government errors, negligence, or fraud. A recent case in Los Angeles resulted in collection letters to as many as 38,000 CalFresh recipients for overissuances that appear to be the result of a system-wide administrative error.  Senate Bill 282 will improve CalFresh by creating employment opportunities and increasing access to prepared food in participating restaurants, which is critical for homeless, elderly, and disabled people who can’t access cooking facilities or have trouble cooking for themselves.

Federal law provides food aid for people with incomes below the Federal Poverty Level through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh in California. CalFresh is administered by the California Department of Social Services (DSS) and county human services agencies, but the food benefits are paid by the federal government. Senator Wiener serves as Chair of the Human Services Committee, where both bills will be heard. 

“No one should go hungry in 2017 California. CalFresh is an essential part of our social safety net,” said Senator Wiener. “These bills expand access to food for low income Californians, improve delivery of these services, and ensure that recipients aren't penalized because of government negligence.”

SB 278 will provide enhanced protections for CalFresh recipients when, through no fault of their own, they receive more benefit then they are supposed to receive through overissuances, and improve the cost-effectiveness of the CalFresh program. Specifically, SB 278 will:

  • Protect recipients from being penalized for administrative errors by requiring the responsible state or county, not the CalFresh recipient, pay for a mass overissuance when it was the result of a major system error, negligence or fraud on the part of state or county. Los Angeles County recently issued collection letters for as many as 38,000 CalFresh recipients for overissuances that appear to be the result of system-wide administrative error.
  • Improve the cost-effectiveness of CalFresh by requiring DSS to set a statewide cost-effective threshold for establishing and administering an overissuance, which will save counties time and resources that are wasted on collecting from clients who have received relatively small overissuances. Currently, federal law has set a threshold of $125 for collecting overpayments, but it costs the counties more than $125 to collect these overissuances, which results in a waste of badly needed resources. 

SB 278 is co-sponsored by the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations.

“CalFresh recipients are some of the most cash-strapped families in California,” said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “When an administrative error results in an overpayment of benefits, we should do all we can to make sure that they aren’t held holding the bag and forced to pay back money they don’t have.”

“While our economy has improved for some Californians, others are still struggling,” said Kevin Aslanian, of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations. “These two bills make important steps toward helping some of our most vulnerable residents to gain access to food and to obtain meaningful employment.”

SB 282, also known as the Reducing Hunger Among Vulnerable Californians Act of 2017, will increase access to prepared food for low income homeless, elderly or disabled Californians and also create employment opportunities for childless homeless adults. Specifically it will:

  • Increase access to prepared foods by codifying and clarifying the rules for the CalFresh Restaurant Meal Program (RMP) which allows homeless, elderly, or disabled people to use food benefits to purchase prepared meals in participating restaurants. Federal law currently allows states and counties to participate in this program, but lack of clear state law on the issue discourages participation by counties. Currently only 8 of California’s 58 counties participate.
  • Create employment opportunities by requiring DSS to seek a federal waiver that allows counties to use CalFresh Employment and Training (E&T) to support a subsidized employment program. CalFresh E&T is a federal matching fund that allows counties to support specified employment and training activities, but the state must obtain a waiver from the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture to participate.

SB 282 is co-sponsored by the County Welfare Directors Association of California, the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

“Many counties have created effective subsidized jobs programs for parents receiving aid through the state’s welfare-to-work program for families. SB 282 seeks to extend this proven concept to include childless adults participating in the CalFresh Employment and Training program,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, Deputy Executive Director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. “Subsidized employment creates connections with employers, boosts skills and job history, and often leads to a permanent position, further reducing hunger and the risk of homelessness for these California residents.”

 “We can be both proud of Californian’s job growth while also recognizing that, even in the best of times, some people will not be able to find work,” said Jessica Bartholow of Western Center on Law and Poverty.  “And being hungry can be a significant deterrent to securing meaningful employment. This bill achieves the overlapping goal of preventing hunger among out-of-work Californians, while helping them hone skills necessary to find work and exit poverty.”