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UC Berkeley Press Release

Contrary to USDA findings, California has high rate of food stamp participation, says UC Berkeley study

– The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has significantly underestimated California's success in getting food stamps to those eligible for them, according to a new study by the University of California, Berkeley's Data Archive & Technical Assistance (UC DATA) program.

According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), from 1999 to 2001 California's food stamp participant access rate - the percentage of people eligible for food stamps who got them - averaged only 42 percent. This placed California among the worst seven states in 1999, the worst six states in 2000, and the worst two states in 2001.

But the UC Berkeley study shows that California is, in fact, among the top states at getting food stamps to those eligible for them. Almost 80 percent of those eligible for food stamps in California received them or a cash substitute in 1999-2001, which puts California among the top 10 states in the nation.

"The USDA significantly underestimated California's performance because it does not appropriately consider some important facts about California," said UC Berkeley political science and public policy professor and lead author Henry Brady. "Many who live in California are ineligible for food stamps as a result of two factors: their immigration status and receipt of Supplemental Security Income. Many non-citizens, both documented and undocumented, are barred from participation in the food stamp program, and California is home to a disproportionate share of this population."

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) estimates that California is home to more undocumented immigrants than any other state in the country, he said.

"These undocumented immigrants, as well as many documented immigrants, are ineligible for the federal food stamp program," said Brady. "Yet, federal statistics penalize California by counting these immigrants as eligible for food stamps.

The authors described the food stamp program as the nation's primary nutrition assistance program, serving over 19 million persons nationally with annual expenditures topping $18 billion. The federal program is run by the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, although states bear primary responsibility for administration and eligibility screening.

California also provides extra cash assistance to those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) rather than providing them with food stamps, as in other states, they said. This alternative funding of food stamp benefits is federally approved but, according to the study, is not appropriately considered in official USDA/FNS calculations of the food stamp participant access rate.

While the USDA calculated a food stamp participant access rate of 42 percent for 2000, the UC Berkeley study estimated a food stamp participation rate of 57 percent, once ineligible immigrants were not counted as eligible, and 80 percent, once those receiving food stamp cash substitutes were counted as receiving food stamps.

"The effect of inappropriately accounting for the high percentage of ineligible non-citizens and the cash-out of food stamp benefits for SSI recipients in California leads to estimates of food stamp participation that are too low," the authors write in their conclusion. "We find that, after making reasonable assumptions, calculations of the food stamp participant access rate by USDA/FNS are only half as large as they should be.

"A more appropriate estimate for the food stamp participation rate in California for 1999, 2000, and 2001," they wrote, "would be 80 percent, 80 percent, and 78 percent, respectively. Inclusion of adjustments for ineligible non-citizens also raises participation rates for the remainder of the country, but to a lesser extent. Overall, these adjustments raise California's rate from well below the national average to about 25 percent above the remainder of the country."

Brady said he hopes this study will promote a dialogue between the USDA and the state of California to improve the methods of estimating food stamp participation rates

UC Berkeley's study just focuses on whether those eligible for food stamps get them or some cash substitute. It does not deal with how well the program serves those who are in need or hungry. The authors write that "by discussing only the use of the program by those who are eligible for it, we bypass the public policy debate over whether the food stamp eligibility rules appropriately target those groups in need of nutrition assistance."

"This is an important issue for California with its large number of people in poverty who are ineligible for food stamps," Brady said, "and other studies should consider this problem."

The UC Berkeley study's calculations combined several data sets from both federal and state agencies. The authors estimated the eligible population using survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau in combination with administrative data from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service, the USDA Food and Nutrition Services and the California Department of Social Services. These data provided the authors with information, such as date of entry and living situations, which affect the food stamp eligibility of immigrants and SSI recipients.

Brady and research analysts Eva Seto and Jon Stiles of UC DATA wrote the report. UC DATA is UC Berkeley's principal archive of computerized social science and health statistics information and is a part of the university's Survey Research Center.