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The Farm Bill passed. What else can we do?

The Farm Bill was passed two weeks ago, which is as miraculous as the rain that is falling in Northern California. Because these things have been anticipated for so long, we ooh and ahh when they happen. We sigh with relief for how bad it could have been.

But while this Farm Bill does not include any of the devastating cuts to eligibility that were proposed during negotiations over the past two years, it is also no reason to celebrate.

It cuts SNAP funding by more than $8 billion over the next ten years, and does little to improve the program for families in California who don’t have enough food to eat. The debate in Congress about the bill focused on whether to cut back access to food stamps and revealed a lack of understanding of – and compassion for – those who use the benefit to put food on the table.

For example, a family of four who qualifies for food stamps earns at most $30,624 per year. To put that figure in perspective, a family of four needs $97,696 to make ends meet in San Francisco, or $70,303 in Fresno, according to the California Budget Project. On average, families receive about $300 per month for food.

Although cuts to the program are certainly not welcome, it is now clear that the program’s main eligibility rules will not change. Given that reality, it is up to California to ensure that SNAP – called CalFresh in California – is as effective at reducing food insecurity as possible.

Despite California’s high cost of living, CalFresh has the lowest take-up rate of any SNAP program in the country; that is, the rate at which those who are eligible take advantage of the benefit. The low take-up is the result of many factors, but one of them is certainly the hassle factor involved with signing up and retaining the benefit.

Which brings me to a passion of mine, which should be a passion of anyone who has enjoyed the efficiency of Amazon.com: horizontal integration. That’s a bit of a technical term, but it means providing people with the benefits they need, and are eligible for, across different silos of program administration. It was an explicit goal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) legislation, and the ACA encourages states to build this idea into their new health insurance marketplaces, as a recent report of ours describes. We also wrote up a set of recommendations for the Legislative Analyst Office on this topic.

To illustrate, think about a person looking for health insurance on Covered California’s web site who may discover that she qualifies for a subsidy because of her low income. The same information she entered could then be used to determine her eligibility for food stamps or child care subsidies. Presto! Like ordering a book on Amazon and getting a recommendation on other titles you might enjoy, the processes would work behind the scenes to ensure individuals are signed up for – or at a minimum, made aware of – all the benefits for which they qualify.

Cities like Philadelphia and states like Colorado are actively connecting their most vulnerable citizens to benefits for which they’re eligible. In Vermont, the state’s Women Infant and Children nutrition program has near universal enrollment after officials connected that program to Medicaid benefits. Families in those communities have fewer hurdles to jump through to get and maintain public benefits, giving them more time to find a job, go to school, and raise their children.

Those of us who work on issues related to child health and well-being are used to telling dire stories of hunger, homelessness, risks of being born too little to be healthy, risks of asthma and obesity, and all the complications for children’s health and well-being that these entail.

The case for horizontal integration is not that kind of a story. If a low-income mother has to wait in line for two hours to sign up for health insurance and then another three hours to sign up for food stamps, that experience becomes a barrier to her families’ well-being. But there is not always a clear line between that hassle and a dramatic story about her or her children.

And yet it is truly important. Time in the lives of low-income parents is scarce. If they cannot afford a car, getting to the office of the local social services agency may involve hours of travel time. Because social services agencies are typically open during regular work hours, parents who are trying to get or keep a job may be stretched to get to the office before it closes, or at all. Parents struggle to pay for child care even when they qualify for child care subsidies because they don’t know how to get them.

Government should work. It should work for the people who need it most, without shaming them or wasting their time. It should be easy, and it should be efficient. And it should be compassionate. What’s the point of running these programs if we don’t make them accessible?

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