How Rule Changes for CalFresh Will Positively Impact Disabled Californians

Photo of grocery store window says "we accept SNAP"

During the decade or so before I landed my current job, I lived in Los Angeles while receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is to say that I lived in a county where the average rent for a studio apartment was always slightly higher than my average monthly income if I wanted to live in a not-so-great part of town. Of course, roommates were always an option, and I like people. Yet the cost was still generally out of reach. And unfortunately, I have always had an extravagant side: in addition to shelter, I also have a great fondness for regular meals, running water, and electricity.

I lived with my parents and took to dogsitting or housesitting whenever the opportunity arose. When that wasn’t possible, I would car camp in national parks (thanks to the Golden Access Passport). There was a lot of joy in this life – being a lover of both dogs and good views – but it was also terribly exhausting and unsettling. I never felt entirely at ease, continuously passing through other people’s spaces as I was.

Every six months to a year, when I became particularly agitated either by cold weather or the low-key unspoken conflict of living with my parents (retirees with too much time on their hands, attention to pay, and an inconsistent amount of understanding), I would take to the internet and try to figure out a way to make the numbers add up. If I could live like a stereotypical college student – as many roommates as we could cram into the smallest possible space – I might be able to afford rent, possibly even pay a small portion of utilities. It always came down to food.

In California, people who receive SSI are ineligible for CalFresh, California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This was always the piece that kept me in my migratory pattern. Kept me from entertaining the idea that there could be a place that even a small fraction of could be my own.

As a novice disabled person doing research, I could never figure out the reasoning for the ineligibility. We lived at the appropriate percentage of the federal poverty line according to the CalFresh website, but Californians on SSI were exempt from receiving food assistance without exception.

It took moving to the state capitol and taking a job in disability advocacy to finally get to the bottom of this. In the mid-1970’s the California government implemented a “Cash-Out” program. Basically, in order to save the cost of administering CalFresh (then food stamps) to folks living on SSI, the state paid all of us an extra $10 a month for food. Though this amount never increased, there the law stayed. The whole time I was living on SSI income I was $10 a month richer than everyone on SSI in the other 49 states, but also, hungry.

Thankfully, after years of dedicated advocacy this “Cash-Out” law has finally been done away with. In June of 2019, Californians who receive SSI will finally be eligible for the $130 or so dollars per month in food assistance that CalFresh provides.

The reversal has been carefully crafted to ensure that no person on SSI, nor the people they live with will lose any of their necessary benefits. Californians receiving SSI will keep receiving the $10 per month, and the money they receive from CalFresh will not be counted among their assets. According to the California Department of Social Services:

  • If their household already receives CalFresh, and adding the SSI recipient would increase that amount, then their household will get an increase.
  • If adding the SSI recipient to a CalFresh household reduces the households’ CalFresh benefit, the SSI recipient will be eligible for state funded nutrition assistance called the Supplemental Nutrition Benefit (SNB) which will be added to the existing CalFresh card for the household.
  • If adding the SSI recipient leads to a total loss of CalFresh benefits for a household, they can get a state funded nutrition benefit called the Transitional Nutrition Benefit (TNB). Similar to the SNB the TNB will load directly onto the households’ existing CalFresh card.

Close to 400,000 disabled Californians and seniors will benefit from this change. Though $130(ish) per month doesn’t sound like much, certainly eligibility for CalFresh would have been enough for me to find that small sliver of an apartment somewhere to call my own. As I type this after a year of living in my own space – sitting quietly, alone at a desk that was for so long an out of reach dream – I cannot wait to see the positive effect that this reversal will have on my fellow disabled Californians.


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Christian McMahon is one of the 2018 Rooted in Writing Fellows. He is a disabled trans writer living in Sacramento, California as well as the communications specialist for The Arc of California. His work has appeared in publications including the Toast, Catapult, and BuzzFeed, among others.

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