The Center's work on 'Food Stamps' Issues


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.

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).

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.

Do Medicaid and SNAP Reach Those Who Most Need Them?

September 30, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Millions of low-income people qualify for both Medicaid and SNAP (formerly food stamps), but the federal government doesn’t regularly assess how many of them actually receive both.  That’s a significant omission: Medicaid and SNAP address the most basic needs of our poorest citizens, and health care and nutrition assistance likely produce more powerful results when provided together.  A new Urban Institute paper examining joint participation among eligible children and non-elderly adults in five states — something the federal government could do for all states every year — suggests there is substantial room for improvement.

Urban Institute researchers calculated joint participation rates for 2011 in Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  (These states participate in the Work Support Strategies initiative, which is developing and testing better ways to deliver key supports for low-income working families.)  They found significant gaps in joint enrollment: in four of the states, only about two-thirds of non-elderly adults and children who were eligible for both Medicaid and SNAP actually received both (see graph).

The findings are consistent with our 2011 report’s finding that a large share of poor children — who are very likely eligible for both Medicaid and SNAP — aren’t enrolled in both.

(To be sure, both findings predate health reform implementation, so they don’t reflect participation of many newly eligible low-income adults in states that expanded Medicaid.  Nor do they reflect the major changes in Medicaid application and enrollment systems that health reform requires in order to improve participation.)

Over 40 states co-administer Medicaid and SNAP for low-income families, often using joint forms, the same computer systems, and the same eligibility workers, so one program’s performance often depends on the other’s.  Yet the federal agencies that oversee the two programs issue program policy, oversee operations, and assess state performance on the two programs separately.

States are key partners in delivering the safety net, so it’s important to take a holistic view of their performance, not just a program-by-program approach.  An annual federal assessment of the share of Medicaid- and SNAP-eligible people in each state who actually receive both would better inform federal and state officials on how well we serve our poorest families and individuals.