More About Brynne Keith-Jennings

Brynne Keith-Jennings

Brynne Keith-Jennings joined the Center in June 2011 as a Research Associate in the Food Assistance Division.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at CBPP.org


Food Assistance Needs Remain High

November 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm

As many Americans prepare to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, millions in this country still have trouble affording enough to eat.  Moreover, poverty and food insecurity, or the share of households with difficulty affording adequate food, remain well above pre-recession levels (see graph) — signs of the critical importance of SNAP and other food assistance.

Food banks from Alaska to Massachusetts to Missouri to Virginia report high need in many communities, sometimes higher than in the recession.  Over half of food programs surveyed reported an increase in clients over the previous year, a recent Feeding America study found.  About half of the households that visit food banks and pantries are working households struggling to feed their families on low wages, the group reports.

By helping families afford an adequate diet, SNAP (formerly food stamps) — which reaches 46 million Americans — reduces poverty and food insecurity.  SNAP also reduces other hardships, such as falling behind on the rent, by freeing up some room in families’ tight budgets.

Yet SNAP benefits, which are based on a formula that presumes a bare-bones diet, fall short for many families.  Benefit levels fail to account for several factors that affect a low-income family’s access to adequate food, an Institute of Medicine study found.  “[A] SNAP allotment that is adequate for a household with sufficient time and skill to purchase and prepare many meals from scratch, with easy access to food stores, and living in a relatively low cost part of the country, may be inadequate for a household without these attributes,” it explains.

Changes in the value of SNAP benefits also affect families’ ability to put food on the table.  Food insecurity fell when the 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits but then rose as this benefit increase lost value due to inflation.  The end of the benefit boost last November, when all recipients experienced a roughly 7 percent cut, likely affected their food insecurity as well.  Some food banks reported a rise in food assistance needs after the cut took effect.

SNAP Kept Nearly 5 Million People out of Poverty Last Year, New Figures Show

October 16, 2014 at 1:39 pm

SNAP (formerly food stamps) kept 4.8 million people above the poverty line in 2013, including 2.1 million children, our analysis of Census data released today shows (see graph).  The figures are based on Census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure, which — unlike the official poverty measure — includes non-cash benefits (like SNAP) and taxes as well as cash income.

By providing low-income families with resources to buy food, SNAP not only reduces “food insecurity” (difficulty affording adequate food) but also frees up room in their very tight budgets to cover other necessities, such as rent and clothing.

SNAP has an especially pronounced impact on poverty among the poorest families with children:  close to half (45 percent) of SNAP participants are children, and SNAP benefits are targeted to the poorest households.  In 2013, SNAP kept 1.3 million children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half of the poverty line, or roughly $9,800 for a family of three).

A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits

October 1, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Today’s start of fiscal year 2015 brings small adjustments to SNAP (formerly food stamps) eligibility and benefits.  We’ve updated our quick guide that provides an overview of SNAP eligibility and benefit calculation rules.

To be eligible for SNAP, a household must meet three tests related to gross monthly income, net income, and assets.  Our guide defines “income” and “assets” and clarifies who isn’t eligible regardless of income or assets — such as individuals who are on strike, all undocumented immigrants, and certain legal immigrants.

It also provides guidelines for calculating a household’s monthly SNAP benefits.  Families with no net income receive the maximum benefit (see table), which equals the cost of the Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan (a diet plan intended to provide adequate nutrition at a minimal cost).  For all other households, the monthly SNAP benefit equals the maximum benefit for that household size minus the household’s expected contribution.

The guide explains how deductions — including shelter expenses, dependent care, child support, and medical expenses — play an important role in determining SNAP benefits.  It also walks through a calculation of benefits for a sample family of three with one full-time, minimum-wage worker and two children, taking into account the family’s income, deductions, and expected contribution toward food.

Click here to read the full paper.

Causes of Food Insecurity Go Well Beyond Low Incomes

September 16, 2014 at 10:37 am

With about 1 in 5 children (and 1 in 7 Americans overall) living in households where someone has trouble affording adequate food at some point during the year, a Brookings Institution report released yesterday reviews research findings on the causes of food insecurity among children and the effectiveness of policies to address it.  Not surprisingly, the report finds that families with low incomes are more likely to be food insecure.  But it also finds that other factors, such as the health of  caregivers and access to stable housing and child care, can influence children’s food insecurity — findings with important lessons for policymakers.

“[E]ven when income and other risk factors are accounted for, adult caregivers’ mental and physical health play a central role in children’s food security,” explains the report’s authors, the University of Illinois’ Craig Gundersen and the University of Kentucky’s James P. Ziliak.  Caregivers in food-insecure households were more likely to report physical and mental health problems, such as depression and substance abuse, than caregivers in food-secure households.

Other factors affecting food insecurity include child-care arrangements — children attending a child-care center were less likely to be food insecure than other children — lack of stable housing, and income instability, the report found.

In examining how well food assistance programs fight food insecurity, the report states, “in most studies, SNAP [i.e., food stamp] participation leads to substantial reductions in food insecurity.”  While SNAP recipients usually have higher rates of food insecurity than other low-income households, that’s because people often apply for SNAP in response to food insecurity, the report explains.

In a panel discussion after the report’s release, CBPP President Robert Greenstein cited its implications for policies in a number of areas, from health reform’s Medicaid expansion to providing more adequate child care funding.  For example, in the median state that hasn’t adopted the Medicaid expansion, a mother loses Medicaid eligibility when her income rises above just 47 percent of the poverty line; expanding Medicaid would enable these states to expand access to health care, potentially reducing food insecurity in households with children.

New “Food Insecurity” Figures Show Recovery Has Yet to Reach Many

September 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Some 14.3 percent of the nation’s households were “food insecure” in 2013, meaning they had difficulty affording adequate food at some point during the year, today’s Agriculture Department (USDA) report shows — a figure not statistically different from 2012’s 14.5 percent and well above pre-recession levels (see graph).   The persistence of high food insecurity in the aftermath of the recession shows that the economic recovery has failed to reach many low-income families.  It also highlights the importance of SNAP (formerly food stamps) in helping families obtain an adequate diet.

The roughly 49 million people in food-insecure households include 15.8 million children, according to the report.

Households with children face especially high rates of food insecurity:  about 19.5 percent among households with children overall and 20.9 percent among households with children under age 6.  Research shows that household food insecurity is linked to negative health and developmental outcomes for children, including poorer physical health and psychosocial development, iron deficiency anemia, and higher rates of hospitalization and chronic health conditions.

Food insecurity also varies significantly by state.  The highest rates in 2011-2013 were in Arkansas (21.2 percent), Mississippi (21.1 percent), and Texas (18 percent).  (USDA uses a three-year average for individual states due to small sample sizes.)  The lowest rates were in North Dakota (8.7 percent), Virginia (9.5 percent), and New Hampshire (10.2 percent).  Most states saw no statistically significant change in 2011-2013 from 2008-2010, but five of the six states that did experience a change saw an increase.

USDA’s annual survey also found that 5.6 percent of households had “very low food security” in 2013, meaning that household members had to take steps such as skipping meals at some point during the year due to lack of resources.  The share of households with very low food security has remained statistically unchanged since 2011 and well above pre-recession levels.