There are a lot of misconceptions out there about food stamps, or as it is officially known, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). I thought I’d take a look at some data to see what we really know about the program. I visited the Department of Agriculture’s web site along with a few others, and here are a few of the things I learned.
First of all, to get a general picture of SNAP, I visited the Feeding America (a very reputable charity) web site and learned this:
There are millions of hungry Americans.
- In 2009, the last year for which there is official USDA data, 50.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households.
- Just over one third of the country (17 states) have more than 20 percent of children living in food insecure households. The states of Arkansas, Arizona, and Texas, have the highest rates of children in households (24 percent) without consistent access to food.
- SNAP has responded to increased need during the current economic downturn. There are more than six million additional people enrolled in SNAP compared to just one year ago.
- Hunger has adverse consequences for all Americans, but particularly for children and mothers. It impedes growth and development. It is a significant predictor of adverse health conditions, and is associated with behavior problems among preschoolers and school-age children.
- SNAP currently reaches only 56 percent of eligible working poor households.
SNAP is effective, efficient and closely monitored.
- SNAP is efficiently targeted to reach people who have the most difficulty affording an adequate diet. Eighty-six percent of participants are households with incomes below the poverty level; 42 percent of households had a gross income less than or equal to half the poverty guideline.
- SNAP benefits are provided in the form of an electronic benefit card (EBT) which acts like a debit card and can be used in supermarket checkout lines for the purchase of food.
- SNAP error rates (overpayments and underpayments) have declined for six consecutive years and are at an all-time low, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for a program administered by thousands of eligibility workers in state and local offices across the country.
- Changes to SNAP that reduce eligibility or benefits cannot be adequately replaced by food banks and other private charities, or by local communities suffering the loss of local jobs. These agencies are already struggling to meet growing demands driven by long-term unemployment, falling wages, and rising fuel prices.
SNAP benefits farmers, the food industry, and the economy.
- USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that each $1 billion of retail demand by SNAP generates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value-added, and 3,300 farm jobs; and an additional $5 of SNAP benefits can generate $9 in total economic activity.
- Changes in SNAP policy have significant impacts on economic activity and household income across the economy, according to an ERS study finding that hypothetical cuts in SNAP benefits reduce food demand and farm production.
- SNAP participation closely follows the economic cycle. With few exceptions (notably 1981-1983 following substantial program cutbacks), SNAP caseloads have closely tracked the unemployment rate, rising as unemployment rises, and falling when it declines.
- Paired with unemployment insurance, SNAP is a vital part of America’s front-line defense against recession. They help to prevent hunger in families with unemployed and underemployed workers who fall into poverty, provide temporary support until these families can get back on their feet, and quickly get federal support into local communities when times are tough.
SNAP makes work pay and helps those seeking economic independence.
- SNAP helps low-wage workers make ends meet and assures that families are financially better off working than on welfare. A family with one adult and two children not participating in any federal nutrition assistance programs, without a vehicle, dependent care and excess shelter costs is eligible to receive $150 in SNAP benefits.
- SNAP promotes self-sufficiency. For every additional dollar a food stamp recipient earns, his or her benefits decline by 24-36 cents, thus providing a strong incentive to work longer hours and search for better employment opportunities.
- In fiscal year 2009, 79 percent of all SNAP households with earnings were households with children. Four percent of all households with children received TANF and earnings combined. Of the 4.4 million single adult food stamp households with children, 20 percent received TANF, while nearly 38 percent had earnings (earnings such as wages, self-employment income, and or social security retirement benefits).
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the 2011 poverty line was $22,350 for a family of 4 in the contiguous United States (in Alaska and Hawaii the line is slightly higher). For each additional person in the family add $3.820 (again slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii). With that in mind, I found the following information at the Department of Agriculture.
- Most SNAP participants are children or elderly. Nearly half (47 percent) were under the age of 18 and another 8 percent were age 60 or older. Working-age women represented 28 percent of the caseload, while working-age men represented 17 percent.
Many SNAP participants had jobs. Nearly 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2010, and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings. For most of these households, earnings were the primary source of income.
The majority of SNAP households did not receive cash welfare benefits. Only 8 percent of all SNAP households received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and another 4 percent received State General Assistance (GA) benefits. Over 21 percent of SNAP households received Social Security and nearly 21 percent received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits given to the aged and disabled.
SNAP households had little income. Only 15 percent had income above the poverty line, while more than 43 percent had incomes at, or below, half the poverty line. Nearly 20 percent had no cash income of any kind. The average gross income for all SNAP households was $731 per month. For a household with an average gross income and SNAP benefit, more than 28 percentof monthly funds (gross income plus SNAP benefits) came from SNAP.
The average monthly benefit received by SNAP households was $287. Forty percent of SNAP households received the maximum benefit for their family size – $668 for a family of four. Less than 4 percent received the minimum benefit ($16) available to households with one or two members. Most households (75 percent) receiving the minimum benefit contained elderly or disabled members and were likely to receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security; another 20 percent had earnings.
Most SNAP households were small. The average SNAP household size was 2.2 persons, but varied considerably by household composition. Households with children were larger, averaging 3.3 members. Households with elderly participants were smaller, averaging 1.3 members.
According to the USDA, 35% of participants are White; 22% are African-American, not Hispanic; 10% are Hispanic; 2% are Asian, 4% are Native American, and 19% are of unknown race or ethnicity.
Finally, let’s take a look at how poverty and food insecurity have changed in the United States since the onset of the financial crisis of 2009. For this I went to World Hunger and found the following:
- In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States.
- In 2010, about one-third of food-insecure households (6.7 million households, or 5.4 percent of all U.S. households) had very low food security (compared with 4.7 million households (4.1 percent) in 2007. In households with very low food security, the food intake of some household members was reduced, and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because of the household’s food insecurity.
- In 2010, children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.8 percent of households with children (3.9 million households.) In one percent of households with children,one or more of the children experienced the most severe food-insecure condition measured by USDA, very low food security, in which meals were irregular and food intake was below levels considered adequate by caregivers.
- The median [a type of average] food-secure household spent 27 percent more on food than the median food-insecure household of the same size and household composition.
- Background: The United States changed the name of its definitions in 2006 that eliminated references to hunger, keeping various categories of food insecurity. This did not represent a change in what was measured. Very low food insecurity (described as food insecurity with hunger prior to 2006) means that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food. This means that people were hungry ( in the sense of “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by want of food” [Oxford English Dictionary 1971] for days each year.
So what have we learned. We know that the average food stamp recipient is white and probably works. The food stamp recipient most likely has children. If you are on food stamps, you are most likely a child, sick, elderly or a single parent. Very few food stamp participants are on welfare.
And we know that food insecurity has gotten much worse in America since the financial crisis of 2009. Food prices are predicted to surge in the coming years as our world population grows, extreme weather continues to affect crops, and commodity speculation goes unchecked. There is no foreseeable end to the financial morass we are in and, in fact, many experts expect it to intensify.
So when you hear your politicians talking about austerity and portray food stamp recipients as lazy or unwilling to work, as people who are unworthy of the help they receive, please remember the facts. What kind of nation are we if we refuse to help the weakest among us eat? Is that the kind of country you want to live in?
Write if you hear something good.