One in seven Americans received assistance from SNAP in FY 2012, which is a rate 141 percent higher than in FY 2000, but only 59 percent higher than in FY 1980. In this paper, I describe the socioeconomic and policy climate in recent decades that had bearing on SNAP participation, along with a formal empirical analysis of those determinants and detailed simulations of the relative contributions of the economy, policy, and demographics to changes in SNAP participation over time. The results suggest that SNAP is operating effectively as an automatic fiscal stabilizer—nearly 50 percent of the increase in participation from 2007-2011 is due to the weak economy—but policy reforms expanding access and benefit generosity also affected participation, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the increase after the Great Recession. The changing demographics of the American household are helping restrain growth in SNAP.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the cornerstone of food assistance in the United States. Begun as a small pilot known as the Food Stamp Program in 1963, today it reigns as one of the largest means-tested transfer programs in the social safety net, serving over 42 million persons in an average month during 2017, at a total annual cost of $68 billion. In 2013 UKPR co-organized a conference on the 50th anniversary of SNAP with the Institute for Research on Poverty and Brookings Institution, with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Economic Research Service in USDA. The conference resulted in an edited volume published in 2015 called SNAP Matters: How Food Stamps Affect Health and Well Being. Among other things, the volume provides strong evidence that SNAP is highly responsive to macroeconomic pressures as well as to policy choices intended to enhance access among low-income households. As a result, it has become one of the most effective antipoverty programs overall, and is particularly effective at lifting non-elderly households with children out of deep poverty. As highlighted in the discussion papers below, UKCPR has also sponsored numerous additional studies on SNAP via its Research Program on Childhood Hunger, along with the FoodAPS, NHIS, and PSID research initiatives.
SNAP has proven to be one of the most successful safety net programs since its implementation 50 years ago. This program has often come under attack throughout its history for many perceived problems (e.g., that it discourages labor force participation). Most recently, SNAP has come under attack for being perceived as one of the causes of the current rates of obesity found in the U.S. One response that has gained some traction is to restrict what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP. There is very little evidence that SNAP is associated with higher probabilities of obesity among participants in comparison to eligible non-participants. In contrast, there is clear evidence that a) SNAP improves the well-being of recipients over numerous dimensions, and(b) imposing restrictions will lead to declines in participation. In light of this evidence, policymakers and program administrators should be reluctant to make fundamental changes to a program as successful as SNAP.
In 2005, Florida implemented an internet-based service delivery system for eligibility determination in public assistance programs, including the Food Stamp, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Medicaid programs. At the same time, Florida switched from a caseworker model to a technology-driven model and decreased staffing levels of employees involved in social service delivery. We conduct an evaluative case study of the effects of these policy changes on the Food Stamp caseload. In particular, we consider the impact on applications and the flows onto and off of the program. To answer these questions, we use administrative data from the Florida Department of Children and Families for the period from 2003 to 2008 to understand the policy impacts on caseload dynamics. Results suggest that modernization may have resulted in decreases in application and inflows to the Food Stamp Program but with important differences for specific demographic groups. Simulations suggest that the strongest negative effects of modernization were observed among the elderly and African Americans. High earners, while still negatively affected by the staffing reductions, were observed to have gained modestly from modernization.
Welfare reform’s success encouraging employment may be affected by the federal Food Stamp program because many households receive welfare and Food Stamps. Food Stamp benefits could discourage employment because benefits are reduced proportionally with income; alternatively, it could encourage employment by increasing stability and allowing more resources to be allocated toward employment-related expenses. I examine the effects of Food Stamps on exiting welfare and becoming employed for welfare recipients. Results suggest, if anything, that Food Stamps discourage employment, and such benefits may discourage transitions off welfare, too. If so, then it may be necessary to study the determinants of welfare participation (welfare reform and economic growth) in conjunction with other government-assistance programs.
Although the Food Stamp Program is the largest entitlement program remaining in the social safety net, comparatively little is known about the potential benefits that the program may confer on recipients. In this paper we examine an important dimension of well being, mental health, and the extent to which participation in the Food Stamp Program may attenuate the effect of food insufficiency on levels of emotional distress. Using longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of families in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) we model emotional distress as a function of food insufficiency and other known risk factors for poor mental health. We allow participation in the Food Stamp Program to have a direct impact on mental health, and then test whether food stamp participation mediates the effect of food insufficiency on emotional distress. To conduct our tests we use a first-difference instrumental variables estimator to control for unobserved heterogeneity in emotional distress and possible measurement error in Food Stamp Program participation. We find that food insufficiency has a sizable deleterious effect on the level of emotional distress, as does participation in the Food Stamp Program. However, we also find that participation in the Food Stamp Program among food insufficient households nearly eliminates the deleterious effect of food insufficiency on emotional health, suggesting that the program is well targeted to those in need of food assistance and improved mental health. This research provides the first evidence that the Food Stamp Program has an important positive spill-over effect on mental health through its mediation of household food insufficiency.
We estimate a model of food stamp program participation allowing for differences between refugees and immigrants. The model examines pre and post reform participation. It further isolates the effect of local labor markets. Using auxiliary information from the INS’ Statistical Yearbooks we are able to identify the impact refugee status has on participation. We demonstrate that regressions using ad hoc variables are subject to severe measurement error bias. We also correct for measurement error in the report of food stamp participation. The model estimates demonstrate the importance of both corrections. Our results demonstrate that failing to separate refugees from immigrants substantially biases the coefficient on immigrants.
The Food Stamp Program provides assistance to households with incomes and assets below fixed thresholds. Although it is the largest entitlement program in the social safety net, little is known about the effect of food stamps on stabilizing fluctuations in household income and consumption. To estimate the volatility of income and the attendant reduction in volatility due to food stamps we use data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics over 1980-1999 along with a model of income that admits permanent and transitory components as well as random growth rate heterogeneity. We then specify a model relating income changes to consumption changes for use in a variance decomposition. This decomposition highlights the role of food stamps in stabilizing food consumption volatility. We estimate the income and food consumption models across a host of samples that vary in the degree of ‘risk’ of food stamp takeup, ranging from all families to those families that lie below the gross income threshold for food stamp eligibility. We find that across all families food stamps reduced income volatility by about 3 percent and consumption volatility by about 4 percent, but this stabilizing role is a much more pronounced 12 and 14 percent among families at high ex ante risk of food stamp participation. Despite the positive role of the Food Stamp Program in smoothing income and consumption shocks there was a marked decline of nearly two-thirds in the income and consumption smoothing benefits of the program in the early 1990s relative to the 1980s. This stabilizing role improved only modestly by the end of the 1990s.