The Center's work on 'Food Stamps' Issues


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.

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.

SNAP Caseloads Down — as Expected

September 2, 2014 at 3:20 pm

“Food Stamp Use Starting to Fall,” the Wall Street Journal points out, noting that SNAP (formerly food stamp) caseloads have fallen by 1.6 million people since their 2012 peak and that the Congressional Budget Office predicts SNAP spending will drop to its 1995 level as a share of the economy in five years.

As we’ve explained, SNAP caseloads grew dramatically during the recession and stayed high due largely to a weak labor market.  As the economy began to recover, caseload growth began to flatten and then fall (see graph), a pattern consistent with past recessions.

Most states’ SNAP caseloads this May were below last May’s levels, the latest Agriculture Department data show (though caseloads were flat or somewhat higher in roughly a dozen states).

The WSJ story gives several examples of former SNAP recipients who’ve since left the program:

One beneficiary-turned-former-beneficiary is Louis Alexander.  Mr. Alexander turned to food stamps last year after losing his job as a maintenance man.  A year later, he is working again — as a truck driver for a company near his home in Louisville, Ky.

He credits food stamps for helping him eat and pay his other bills while job searching. . . .

For Jessica Singh, an unmarried mother who stopped using food stamps this spring, things are generally looking up.

After being dependent on SNAP for over two years, the 26-year-old in Fort Wayne, Ind., got a degree in human services, found internships and has landed two part-time jobs, including one at a domestic-violence shelter. Food stamps “definitely gave me a sense of stability,” she said.  “You know there is going to be food on the table.”

And yet it isn’t easy going without SNAP’s safety net.  If her 2-year-old gets sick and Ms. Singh can’t work, her income takes a hit.  Last month, Ms. Singh visited a food pantry for the first time, picking up free boxes of pancake mix, cereal and Hamburger Helper, along with toilet paper.  She said she will go earlier next time; by the time she got there during her first trip, items like bananas and hamburger meat were gone.

For more on SNAP, including cost and caseload trends, who’s eligible, and its impact, see our chart book.