Monday, 14 September 2009

Food Stamp Program (SNAP) serves record numbers

The federal government's most important anti-hunger program provided food assistance to record numbers of low-income Americans in June.

For the first time ever, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, served more than 35 million people in June, according to the most recent monthly data from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

The program supports a monthly budget for food from grocery stores (not counting restaurants) of $668 in a family of four (or $167 per person). Very poor households receive this full food budget from the SNAP program, while low-income households that are a little better off are expected to contribute a portion of their own cash income to their food budget.

(An interesting "food stamp challenge" or "SNAP challenge" is to try to live for a week on a food budget of $38, as a way of learning about food conditions for low-income Americans).

Following a substantial benefit increase in April (.pdf), which was part of the federal stimulus package, the average per person monthly benefit was $133 in June, compared with $101 a year earlier. This raised the federal cost for benefits to $4.7 billion in June, compared with $2.9 billion a year earlier.

The cost of the SNAP program responds automatically to economic conditions (.pdf), expanding during recessions and contracting during good times. A major research challenge over the years has been to understand exactly how strongly the SNAP caseload responds to economic conditions and policy changes.

Here is a Google gadget showing the time series for the SNAP / Food Stamp caseload over the years.

Here is a second gadget showing, for each state, how the SNAP caseload responds to the unemployment rate and other economic and policy variables. The size of the bubble is proportional to the state population. When the unemployment rate rises, the bubble moves rightward. When the proportion of the population receiving SNAP benefits rises, the bubble moves upwards. The color changes show the date of implementation for important welfare reforms during the 1990s.

One cool thing to do with the second gadget is to click on a particular state, to see how its experience is similar to or different from other states. For example, if you select Louisiana (near the top on the left in the opening setting), you can see the dramatic effect of Hurricane Katrina on food stamp / SNAP participation.

Another cool thing to do is to notice the effect of economic conditions on food stamp /SNAP participation. The whole cloud of bubbles drifts upward and rightward during recessions, and downward and leftward during economic expansions. But there are interesting exceptions. During parts of the current decade, there was economic expansion but food stamp / SNAP participation kept rising.

Graduate students Joseph Llobrera and Hanqi Luo helped with the gadgets. Feel free to comment on interesting things you notice in these data.

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