Five Things You Probably Don’t Know About Food Stamps

January 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is in the news these days because of comments made by some Republican presidential candidates. Below are five things you probably don’t know about the program.

  1. A large and growing share of SNAP households are working households (see chart). In 2010, more than three times as many SNAP households worked as relied solely on welfare benefits for their income.

    The share of SNAP households with earnings has continued growing in the past few years — albeit at a slower pace — despite the large increase in unemployment.

    One reason why SNAP is serving more working families is that, for a growing share of the nation’s workers, having a job has not been enough to keep them out of poverty.

  2. SNAP Working Households Have Risen

  3. SNAP responded quickly and effectively to the recession. SNAP spending rose considerably when the recession hit. That’s precisely what SNAP was designed to do: respond quickly to help more low-income families during economic downturns as poverty rises, unemployment mounts, and more people need assistance. In 2010, for example, SNAP kept more than 5 million people out of poverty and lessened the severity of poverty for millions of others, under a poverty measure that counts SNAP benefits as income.

    Economists consider SNAP one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus, so SNAP’s quick response to the recession — as well as a temporary benefit increase enacted in the 2009 Recovery Act — helped the broader economy. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.

    Converting SNAP to a block grant, as some have proposed, would largely destroy its ability to respond to rising need during future recessions, forcing states to cut benefits or create waiting lists for needy families.

  4. Today’s large SNAP caseloads mostly reflect the extraordinarily deep and prolonged recession and the weak recovery. Long-term unemployment hit record levels in 2010 and has remained extremely high. Today, 43 percent of all unemployed workers have been out of work for more than half a year; the previous post-World War II high was 26 percent in 1983.

    Workers who are unemployed for a long time are more likely to deplete their assets, exhaust unemployment insurance, and turn to SNAP for help, since it is one of the few safety net programs available for many long-term unemployed workers. In most states, other programs — such as cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and state General Assistance programs — haven’t responded effectively to rising need during the recession.

    More than one in five workers who had been unemployed for over six months received SNAP in 2010, according to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

  5. SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Each year states pull a representative sample (totaling about 50,000 cases nationally) and thoroughly review the accuracy of their eligibility and benefit decisions. Federal officials re-review a subsample of the cases to ensure accuracy in the error rates. States are subject to fiscal penalties if their error rates are persistently higher than the national average.

    In 2010, only 3 percent of payments went to ineligible households or to eligible households but in excessive amounts. Payment accuracy has continued to improve in the past few years, despite the large increase in SNAP enrollment.
  6. SNAP is Projected to Shrink as a Share of GDP

  7. SNAP’s recent growth is temporary. CBO predicts that SNAP spending will fall as a share of the economy as the economy recovers and the Recovery Act benefit increases expire (see chart). By 2021, SNAP is expected to return nearly to pre-recession levels as a share of the economy.

    Over the long term, SNAP is not growing faster than the economy. So, it is not contributing to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems.

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More About Stacy Dean

Stacy Dean

As Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, Dean works extensively with program administrators, policymakers, and non-profit organizations to improve the food stamp program and provide eligible low-income families easier access to its benefits.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at CBPP.org

15 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. Rob #
    1

    In my particular universe, there are only 2 answers to “Are you working?”: YES or NO.

    What is the employment status of the 39% receiving welfare who are neither “working” nor “not working”?

    Based on the assumptions:
    -Someone can either be “Working” or “Not Working” (No third option)
    -Someone can either be “Receiving Government Assistance” or “Not Receiving Government Assistance” (Again, no third option)

    If LESS than 50% work in addition to receiving food stamps, I would venture to guess that more than HALF are not working. (100% – 47.8% = 52.2%)

    However, if 39% of welfare recipients responded that they were neither “Working” nor “Not Working” this could be part of a larger underlying problem in which a lack of education is preventing the overall population from recognizing the difference between being employed and watching Judge Judy.

  2. Carolina_D #
    2

    There is nothing you can say that will convince a lot of people that most/all people on SNAP/foodstamps aren’t ‘gaming the system’ and buying things like booze and steaks with their benefits. (Despite the fact that alcohol isn’t able to be purchased with food stamps.) It’s really sad. So many of these people are more than willing to watch children and the elderly starve to death rather than think any of their tax dollars might be helping them to stay alive. We have turned into a society that can only think about themselves. Anytime the subject of ‘entitlement programs’ is mentioned anywhere there are hundreds of rude comments about the beneficiaries. I certainly hope the people who make them are very certain that they or theirs will never need government help for any reason. (But, in this economy it’s doubtful.)

  3. 3

    What are the regulations about what people can get with the plan, which many thing permits people to buy steaks and alcohol, the stereotypes?

  4. Sergei #
    4

    Question about a friend of mine:
    Please explain how to get SNAP in Texas? When, female, single, over 70, on Social Security of about $460/month, medicare deducted. With 401K in Banks totaling $15000, some being used every month to balance expenses, owning own small Condo and a Car ? Does she qualify?

  5. Jeff Lamm #
    5

    Query:

    Is the “5 Things etc. etc.” the result of a lack of released information, or because of a massive amount of disinformation being released?

  6. SJL #
    6

    Food stamps also are totally returned back into the economy…they are spent on food. This would also support grocery stores and farmers who sell this food, They are not held and invested into private equity firms, Wall Street, or offshore accounts. Seems a win-win situation.

  7. Theodore Herman #
    7

    Paralleling this, Medicaid households are increasingly working households — for the same reasons.

  8. Brendan Finucane #
    8

    Relevant information, excellent summary. Thanks for your work!

  9. 9

    Hi. I’m curious. The stats in Figure 1 report only 61%. I’m curious how the other 39% were distributed. Would you please let me know? Thank you!

    Bob

    • 10

      Thanks for the question.

      SNAP households with children have various combinations of types of earned and unearned income. You can find a table from USDA on page 40 of this document:
      http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/SNAP/FILES/Participation/2010Characteristics.pdf

      The data are drawn from a sample of SNAP households, and so represent a typical, or average month in federal fiscal year 2010. Of the 39 percent of households with children who did not have earnings and were not receiving TANF in a typical month:
      • About 27 percent of the total received other forms of unearned income, such as child support, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security, unemployment compensation, or other governmental assistance.
      • About 12 percent of SNAP households with children had no countable income in the typical month. They may recently have lost a job or experienced a separation or divorce.

  10. JKO #
    11

    Can you please explain the numbers in the first bullet point? 47.8% of SNAP households are working and 13.2% are not. What accounts for the remaining balance of 39% of the SNAP households?

    • 12

      Thanks for the question.

      SNAP households with children have various combinations of types of earned and unearned income. You can find a table from USDA on page 40 of this document:
      http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/SNAP/FILES/Participation/2010Characteristics.pdf

      The data are drawn from a sample of SNAP households, and so represent a typical, or average month in federal fiscal year 2010. Of the 39 percent of households with children who did not have earnings and were not receiving TANF in a typical month:

      About 27 percent of the total received other forms of unearned income, such as child support, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security, unemployment compensation, or other governmental assistance.
      About 12 percent of SNAP households with children had no countable income in the typical month. They may recently have lost a job or experienced a separation or divorce.

  11. MGK #
    13

    Your #5 really doesn’t qualify as “something you don’t know.” The reality is that the CBO doesn’t know. CBO projections are based on existing conditions regardless of how realistic they may be. For example, CBO projections of GDP (which is obviously critical to the graph) assumes expiration of Bush tax cuts, elimination of payroll tax holiday, implementation of the Medicare reimbursement formula (passed by Congress in 1997, but blocked anually since then), etc. They are also projecting specific unemployment rates and that a recession will not occur over the next 10 years (even though this has never happened).

    My point is that anything coming from the CBO is not so much a projection or prediction, but rather an analysis of a possible outcome based on a very specific, highly unrealistic set of conditions. Using this as a basis to say that things will improve is disingenuous and circular logic.

    • 14

      Thanks for the comment.

      Our blog makes the point that most people don’t know that the recent SNAP enrollment and spending increases are expected to be temporary and are expected to decrease as a share of GDP. We used CBO figures in part because those are the standard estimates used in DC for expected (not guaranteed program spending.) But, it was also in response to policy makers citing CBO figures of program growth as a rationale for cutting SNAP. The implication has been that growth is not expected to turn around.

      By statute CBO is required to assume that current spending and revenue laws continue in effect as they are scheduled to under existing law for purposes of its “current law” baseline. CBO, aware of current policy debates, also publishes alternative scenarios that assume certain unlikely expirations do not occur. All aspects of CBO projections cannot be tossed out because underlying mandatory assumptions are used in its baseline by law.

      In the past, SNAP costs have risen quickly when a recession throws many people out of work and fall as the economy improves and jobs and incomes for lower-income workers improve. Moreover, the nature and level of SNAP law has been pretty stable in recent decades and, more importantly, there are little or no scheduled changes in the SNAP law that would affect eligibility. Under almost any reasonable GDP assumption SNAP would be falling in the projections.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • Narvid Borvalis #
        15

        Not sure why someone feels the need to call your analysis “disingenuous”, your explanation is cogent.

        I have followed this blog for some time and find it to be very careful and well reasoned. That is all I hope to get from economic analysis, and sadly, yours is one of the few that accomplishes this.

        Thanks for the excellent work!



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