The Center's work on 'Food Assistance' Issues

The Center designs and promotes polices to make the Food Stamp Program more adequate to help recipients afford an adequate diet, more accessible to eligible families and individuals, and easier for states to administer. We also help states design their own food stamp programs for persons ineligible for the federal program. Our work on the WIC program includes ensuring that sufficient federal funds are provided to serve all eligible applicants and on helping states contain WIC costs. Our work on child nutrition programs focuses on helping states and school districts implement recent changes in how they determine a child’s eligibility for free or reduced-priced school meals.


Reaching More Needy Americans

November 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm

We’ve noted this Thanksgiving week that the safety net helps millions of Americans avert hardship and meet basic needs like food and housing.  Unfortunately, many eligible people miss out on needed help.  At a time of year when many Americans make a special effort to help the less fortunate, states and localities can redouble their efforts to connect these powerful programs to vulnerable friends and neighbors.

One important area needing attention is reaching people eligible for both SNAP (formerly food stamps) and Medicaid.  In four of the five states that Urban Institute researchers examined, only about two-thirds of children and adults who were eligible for both programs actually received both (see graph).  The rates were even lower for adults: in three of the five states, fewer than 60 percent of eligible adults received both.

The study recommends that states simplify application procedures and do more to inform eligible people about these benefits.

Changes like these can have a big impact.  Many states have made intensive efforts in recent years to increase SNAP participation among eligible people, such as by expanding outreach and reforming policies that discourage participation, particularly among working families.  (Those policies include requiring recipients to go to SNAP offices every 90 days to reapply and imposing unnecessary paperwork.)  States have streamlined administrative processes while maintaining high payment accuracy.

These activities boosted SNAP’s national participation rate from 54 percent to 83 percent between 2002 and 2012.  These efforts, however, have been within SNAP and don’t always ensure that eligible people get both SNAP and other critical supports, like Medicaid.  The relatively low joint participation rate for Medicaid and SNAP suggests that states can do much better to enroll people who qualify for both programs.

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.

Veterans and the Safety Net

November 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Veterans’ Day is an appropriate time to highlight some ways that the safety net helps many low-income veterans and active-duty members of the military make ends meet.  It’s important to note that policymakers’ actions in areas like health coverage and tax credits for working families have a big impact on veterans and their families.

SNAP (formerly food stamps):  Roughly 1.7 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP at some point during the year, and roughly 980,000 live in households that participate in an average month.  SNAP provides an essential support for low-income veterans, who may be unemployed, working in low-wage jobs, or disabled.  Click here for more.

Housing assistance:  Roughly 343,000 veterans — most of them elderly or with disabilities — receive rental assistance to help them afford housing.  Rental assistance appears to have played a central role in the 33 percent decline in veterans’ homelessness since 2010 (see graph), and it allows veterans to devote more of their limited resources to other basic needs, like food or medicine.  Click here and here for more.

Health coverage:  Roughly 215,000 veterans in 23 states are uninsured and denied Medicaid because their state has refused to take up health reform’s Medicaid expansion.  Their income is too high for Medicaid under prior eligibility rules but too low to receive subsidies to buy private coverage through the new insurance marketplaces.  Click here for more.

Working-family tax credits:  Many families that include one or more veterans or active-duty military would lose all or part of two federal tax credits if key provisions expire as scheduled at the end of 2017.  Some 450,000 veteran and armed forces families with children would lose all or part of their Child Tax Credit; a similar number of veteran or active-duty military families would lose all or part of their Earned Income Tax Credit.  Click here for more.

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).

Data Desire Needn’t Be Barrier to Kids’ Meals

October 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is now available nationwide, yet some districts are hesitant to implement it for fear of losing data from school meal applications.  But to get the data, we need not sacrifice school meals for kids.

Across the country, teachers and school nutrition administrators have praised CEP, which allows high-poverty schools to feed all students breakfast and lunch at no charge, for streamlining the school meal programs.  One of its key benefits is that participating schools don’t collect meal applications or make individual eligibility determinations, removing an administrative burden on school districts.  Instead, whole schools qualify to implement CEP based on the share of their students who are automatically approved for school meals because their families are enrolled in an anti-poverty program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or because they are at risk of hunger due to being homeless or in foster care.

While eliminating meal applications simplifies school meal programs, school districts have long used the income data from applications to gauge a school’s or family’s poverty level to target education funding or other benefits to the most needy.  As a result, it’s critical that CEP not disadvantage high-poverty schools or low-income children with regard to education funding or services.  It is equally important that an interest in data from school meal applications not stand in the way of making it easier for low-income children to receive the nutritious meals they need at school.

School districts and states that need a data source to replace the meal applications can use one of many available alternatives.  The U.S. Department of Education has issued detailed and flexible guidance on how CEP schools can fully participate in Title I, the federal education funding stream for disadvantaged students.  The guidance offers three main options for alternative data that school districts can use when implementing CEP.  The states that adopted CEP over the past few years have praised the flexible options.

States have taken different approaches with regard to their own education funding and other benefits that states and school districts allocate based on meal application data.  Louisiana and Texas, for example, are relying on the data that remains available through the school meal programs (Louisiana combines it with data from other programs).  States like Kentucky and Michigan have school districts collect individual income information outside the meal programs, which makes sense when the data are needed for other purposes.  California requires school districts to collect individual income data, but they can then use the data for four years.

Changing data sources does require administrative adjustments and may result in modest shifts in funding allocations.  But we hope that schools’ desire for data about which children are struggling with poverty and food insecurity won’t stand in the way of alleviating those hardships.