Young people leaving foster care already face frustrating barriers when it comes to getting food stamps, a critical support for a population with high rates of homelessness and unemployment. As the Trump administration continues its efforts to clamp down on food stamp eligibility with a new set of rules targeting people living in the most impoverished parts of the country, foster youth and those aging out of the system will have an even tougher time feeding themselves.
Trump’s newest rule for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps feed about 40 million Americans, will limit states’ ability to use work-requirement exemptions to shield specific regions and jobless populations. The rule is set to take effect in April with the administration projecting it will push more than 700,000 people off food stamps at an anticipated savings to the federal government of $15 billion over 10 years.
In California, advocates say the changes to SNAP will have an outsized effect on current and former foster youths after age 18. They are among the state’s many eligible residents tripped up by rules and requirements viewed by many as already too arcane and restrictive – in a state that ranks near the bottom of all states for utilization of the lifeline benefits.
“Food stamps is a service I thought was supposed to be accessible and available for those in need,” said Quianna Arnberg, a 20-year-old student at Sonoma State University and former foster youth who said she had been denied CalFresh, California’s name for SNAP benefits. Instead, she finds free food available on campus, and has even gone on dates to get a free meal.
“It’s tragic to be told no so many times and face so many obstacles from a system that is supposed to help you,” Arnberg said. “You give up on yourself because they have given up on you.”
“Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents,” or ABAWD, was introduced as a category of food stamp recipient as part of the 1996 federal welfare reform. For adults with the ability to work who do not claim any dependents, SNAP eligibility is tied to the pursuit and attainment of gainful employment. Federal law limits SNAP eligibility for childless unemployed and underemployed adults to just three months out of every three years – unless they are able to prove they have worked an average of 20 hours a week.
In the bill-signing ceremony for the overhaul of welfare 23 years ago, President Bill Clinton spoke out against targeting able-bodied adults (at the 16-minute mark if you click here), prompting his then-chief of staff Leon Panetta to craft some protective exemptions.
That protection came in two ways. First, states have been allowed to seek and obtain waivers for certain regions with chronic high unemployment, or statewide in a time of economic crisis. The idea is that demand for food stamps should decline as the overall economy improves, while acknowledging that a booming economy doesn’t lift every region equally.
Second, states are permitted to exempt 12 percent of able-bodied, childless SNAP recipients from the work requirements. States can choose to use that flexibility to target groups that struggle the most with finding employment.
And this monthly exemption has been bankable – if a state doesn’t use it right away, it can be used down the line. To that end, California has accrued more than 800,000 individual exemptions, according to research by the nonprofit California Homeless Youth Project.
The Trump administration’s plan will scale back the ability to classify a geographic area for waivers. Currently, 44 percent of ABAWD recipients live in an area with such a waiver, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that will drop to 11 percent under the new rules.
The new rules also end the use of accrued exemptions – if a state doesn’t use its 12 percent margin each month, it goes away.
On the Chopping Block
With regional waivers greatly restricted, former foster youths will be among the previously eligible groups likely to be pushed out or excluded from food stamp benefits. Just 49 percent of former foster youths report having full- or part-time employment by age 21, according to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And the restrictions on geographic waivers means more of these vulnerable young adults will live in areas no longer protected from the work requirements.
But the removal of accrued exemptions could be even more devastating for youth aging out of foster care.
Many states use their built-up backlog of exemptions to account for errors. If a food stamp recipient turns out to be ineligible, for example, the state could slot that person’s benefits paid out under SNAP into their 12 percent exempt bucket and not incur a loss of federal dollars.
But the error rate is not nearly 12 percent, so many states have carried over a large arsenal of exemptions that they will lose when the new law goes into effect. According to federal data, there were 8.6 million accrued exemptions nationwide at the end of 2018. California alone has 866,894 “banked” exemptions.
The Western Center on Law and Poverty and other advocates have been urging California to use those exemptions to provide blanket coverage for youth coming out of foster care, which can now be extended to age 21.
“People recognize there is a high unemployment rate among that population,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the center. “They’re at the top of the list” for exemptions.
Now, the state will have less than a year to use or lose the exemptions.
The implications of the new Trump rule on foster youth and their families are significant. But what is perhaps more dire right now, before any new rule takes effect, is the fact that so few young people transitioning out of care get connected with food stamps in the first place.
Although the dollar amount is relatively meager – the average monthly SNAP benefit for 2019 worked out to about $1.45 per meal, about enough for a can of soup and well under the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal – the benefit remains a critical, if underutilized support for young adults couch-surfing and sleeping in cars in their college parking lots.
California ranks 46th out of 50 states in overall SNAP utilization rates, according to the United States Department of Agriculture – just 72 percent of eligible people were connected in 2016 – and the challenges for all low-income people are more acute for foster youth. Many are unaware they can receive food stamps, and for those that are, after being bounced around the system, they may not have access to the personal documents they need to apply.
While California’s overall SNAP utilization is among the worst in the country, it is above average in connecting current and former foster youths to the food stamp benefit. Fifty percent of California foster youth report being connected to food stamps by age 21, according to a recent survey project by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall – the national estimate is 30 percent receiving food stamps.
California tried to better connect foster youths through a 2009 state law mandating the state’s Department of Social Services to make specific efforts to transition foster youth onto CalFresh. But many child welfare advocates believe that the benefit is still underutilized among such a needy population.
“The problem hasn’t been taken care of and we all know it,” said Bartholow, who was involved in writing the 2009 legislation.
Maychell Anaya, a former foster youth from Tehama County, said nobody in the foster care system ever told her she might qualify for help to feed her three children.
“I didn’t really know that I should [apply] until I was 22. I was still going to school and trying to work, but it wasn’t enough to get myself and my kids on our feet,” she said. Without the food stamps she eventually signed up for, “there would’ve been no money at all.”
For students in particular – who in the community college, state university and University of California systems face much higher rates of food insecurity than their peers – there is too often confusion among caseworkers about eligibility. And while direct payments made to older youth in extended foster care may count as income and can affect the amount of their food stamp benefit, other financial supports such as tuition aid or wages related to an independent living program should not count against them.
Jaci Cortez, 24, of Los Angeles, entered foster care at age 4. The system displaced her 15 times, and after aging out at 21, she ended up homeless. As a student at East Los Angeles College, she caught naps in school offices, and did her homework on park benches. And then there was the worrying about her next meal.
“When you’re trying to eat at least once a day like I was, the cheap single-menu items at fast food locations was all I could’ve afforded,” she said.
Although compiling the paperwork required for CalFresh benefits made it difficult to apply, Cortez was fortunate enough to have a caseworker who knew how to navigate the process. And in 2018, amid the tumult of her life, getting food stamps had a stabilizing effect. Because she knew what she would receive each month, Cortez said she learned how to budget and be thrifty about finding the best prices for the largest quantity of groceries she could buy.
“Without food stamps I wouldn’t have had normal meals every day, but most importantly gotten access to healthy food,” she said.
Still it wasn’t really enough: “Even doing that, to try to eat and stretch my change and dollars to the max there were a lot of days I went starving – or even couldn’t eat at all to save money for another day.”
Katarina Sayally is the Youth Voice correspondent for The Chronicle of Social Change. Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Chronicle, and a former investigative reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News.