Stimulus boost for SNAP helps avert diminished food security

by Editorial Staff
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WASHINGTON — Despite the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the number of food insecure households declined in 2009, thanks in part to a temporary broadening of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamps).

According to research conducted by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about half a million fewer households were food insecure in 2009 than would have been expected, and a slightly smaller figure were very food insecure than would have occurred without the stimulus.

The study of the program, which examined the impact on food security following the 2009 economic stimulus package, was published in the June issue of Amber Waves magazine. The study was written by Mark Nord and Mark Prell of the E.R.S.

The U.S.D.A. tracks data on food security through surveys of families (the Census Bureau gathers the data with U.S.D.A. funding). Questions in the survey cover a range of food access issues, from worrying about running out of food to not eating for an entire day. The questions specify money or other resources as the cause of the behavior, to ensure that dieting is not the cause.

Food insecure households are, at times, unable to acquire enough food to sustain an active, healthy life for everyone in the household. Very low food security is a severe range of food insecurity “characterized by reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns of one or more household members due to inadequate resources for food,” the E.R.S. said.

While economic expansion was the purpose of the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (A.R.R.A.), the E.R.S. study looked at the impact of the heavier SNAP funding on affected families.

The A.R.R.A. expanded eligibility for SNAP benefits to jobless adults without children, with the increase in benefits tied to the number of qualifying people in a household. For example, benefits for a family of four increased by $80 per month. The stimulus program also suspended rules limiting how long unemployed participants could receive benefits.

Summarizing their findings, the E.R.S. said “SNAP enhancements” under the stimulus program “increased food spending by low-income households and improved their food security during unusually challenging economic times.”

The U.S.D.A.’s largest food and nutrition assistance program, SNAP benefits were provided to 31.8 million people in December 2008, equating to 10.6% of the U.S. population. The average monthly benefit was $114.80 per person with a total program cost of $37.5 billion.

By April 2009, the benefits were going to 13.6% of the population.

As an example of the benefits expansion provided by the stimulus to already qualifying families, the E.R.S. said a family of four with monthly net income of $980 qualified for $294 in SNAP benefits before the A.R.R.A. and $374 during the stimulus program, a 27% increase.

According to the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S.D.A., which administers SNAP, 39 million people were receiving SNAP benefits by December 2009, eight months after the A.R.R.A. expanded the program. The average benefit was $134.55 per person per month, up 17% from December 2008.

Looking at the impact of the program on food security, the E.R.S. said the findings were very positive.

“The percentages of households with food insecurity and very low food security were unchanged from 2008 to 2009 despite continued rising unemployment during the year,” the study found. “Furthermore, the prevalence of very low food security measured during the 30-day period prior to each survey declined somewhat from 2008 to 2009, and the decline was greatest for households with income near or below the poverty line.”

Drilling deeper into the actual impact of the A.R.R.A. on SNAP, the study noted a 25% increase in program participation between December 2008 and December 2009.

“Much of this increase was due to increased economic hardship as the recession deepened,” the E.R.S. said.

Still, the A.R.R.A. played a role as well, Mr. Prell and Mr. Nord said. They estimated that only half of the 25% increase could be explained by factors such as employment or household income.

“Higher post-A.R.R.A. SNAP benefits likely motivated some households to participate that would not have enrolled to receive the lower pre-A.R.R.A. benefits,” they said. “The A.R.R.A. suspension of time limits for jobless adults without children also may have increased participation. Prior to A.R.R.A., SNAP participation by many jobless, working-age, nondisabled adults without children was limited to three months in a three-year period.”

Mr. Prell and Mr. Nord also evaluated the impact of the A.R.R.A. on food spending.

“Median food spending by likely SNAP-eligible households in the food security survey was 88.8% of the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan (a model of food types commonly consumed by low-income households) in late 2008,” the E.R.S. said. “Adjusting for changes in income, employment, and other household conditions, the expected figure for late 2009 was 89.2%. However, the median food spending reported by likely SNAP-eligible households in late 2009 was 94% of the T.F.P. — a difference of 4.8, or 5.9% higher than in 2008 and 5.4% higher than expected for 2009. These calculations take into account changes in food prices because they are expressed relative to the cost of the T.F.P. in the month each survey was conducted.”

The authors acknowledged that some of the increased food spending was due to a decline in real food prices, but they still estimated a 2.2% increase in food spending in SNAP eligible households because of the SNAP expansion under the A.R.R.A.

Meanwhile, the E.R.S. estimated the percentage of households that were food insecure was 2.2% lower than would have been expected absent the A.R.R.A. program.

“The improvements in food security rates in 2009 correspond to about 530,000 fewer food-insecure households and 480,000 fewer households with very low food security than would have been expected considering economic and demographic changes from 2008 to 2009,” Mr. Nord and Mr. Prell said. “These represent reductions of about 8% and 17%, respectively. As was the case with food spending, the effect of the A.R.R.A. SNAP enhancements would be concentrated among SNAP recipients, so the percentage reductions would be about twice as large as those calculated for all likely SNAP-eligible households. “

Supporting their findings, they noted that no improvement in food security was identified for households above the SNAP-eligibility range. For nearly SNAP-eligible households, food insecurity worsened despite a decline in real food prices. The worsening was modest, though, the authors said.

Mr. Prell and Mr. Nord said the E.R.S. findings are relevant not only for analysis of the stimulus package but as a window into the overall effectiveness of SNAP in combating food insecurity.

The special A.R.R.A. expansion expired in October 2010. The E.R.S. said the SNAP changes were not intended to be permanent when passed by Congress.

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