Rates of SNAP Receipt Stabilize or Drop in All Regions for First Time Since Great Recession

July 28, 2015
 

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Key Findings

Icon of the number 13.5%
The share of households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits declined slightly between 2012 and 2013 from 13.6 to 13.5 percent, the first decrease since the recession began in 2007.
Icon of a down arrow
Across regions and place types (rural, suburban, and city), SNAP receipt declined or leveled off, breaking the trend of yearly increases recorded in every region and place type since the recession began.
Icon of 77.6%
The share of SNAP households containing one or more workers increased modestly to 77.6 percent (up 0.9 percentage point), driven by a sizable increase (3.4 percentage points) in suburban places.

Summary

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From the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007 until 2012, receipt of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits grew steadily.1 Participation and funding rose to historic levels2 driven by the changing economy, intensified efforts to enroll eligible populations, and expanded benefits and eligibility via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Throughout the recovery, SNAP has acted as an economic stimulus and part of a safety net for struggling families. In 2013, SNAP receipt fell slightly—a decline perhaps indicative of a slowly recovering economy. However, substantially more households still reported receiving SNAP benefits in 2013 than before the recession.3

Despite the declines in SNAP receipt in 2013, the program remains an important support for populations at risk for food insecurity and hunger. There is currently substantial disagreement about the future of SNAP funding. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 made no substantial cuts to SNAP funding, and allotted additional funds to improving access to SNAP for seniors. By comparison, the budget resolution adopted by Congress cuts low- and moderate-income entitlements (outside of health care) by an average of one-third by 2025.4 If cuts to income security programs are applied across the board, the plan would cut $350 billion dollars over the next decade, from programs—like SNAP—that serve low income families. Although the proposed cuts are unlikely to be enacted in 2015, cuts will be debated and are likely to be a major component of the Farm Bill reauthorization debate, scheduled for 2018. Further, the impact of an earlier reduction in funding (November 2013) is not yet visible in most data, making it an important time to assess SNAP’s reach.5 This brief uses data from the American Community Survey to document rates of SNAP receipt in 2013, to track changes since the onset of the recession in 2007, and to monitor receipt by region and across rural places, suburbs, and cities. In addition, it examines levels of SNAP receipt among potentially vulnerable populations to determine how receipt has changed among these groups since the recession began.6

Image of Figure 1: Percent of Households Reporting Snap Receipt, By Region and Place Type, 2013
 
Figure 2 - Percent of Households Reporting Snap By Receipt, By Householders' Characteristics, 2013
 
Figure 3 - Median Household INcome Among Household Reporting Snap Receipt (2013 Dollars)

Post-Recession Growth in SNAP Receipt Ends

In 2013, 13.5 percent of all households reported receiving SNAP, slightly lower than 13.6 percent in 2012. From the beginning of the recession through 2012, SNAP receipt rose substantially each year in all regions of the United States and across all place types. In 2013, however, SNAP receipt did not increase in any region or place type, and instead stabilized or declined in all areas.

Though overall growth in SNAP receipt ended in 2013, many of the longer-term patterns of SNAP receipt persisted. For example, receipt was highest in cities, where 16.6 percent of households reported receipt, followed by rural places (15.9 percent), and suburbs (10.8 percent). Further, rates in all regions and place types were still substantially higher than at the recession’s start in 2007 (7.7 percent nationally) or at its official end in 2009 (10.3 percent). Regionally, the South had the highest rate of SNAP receipt, at 14.8 percent of households. At the intersection of region and place type, especially high rates were found in the rural South and in cities in the Northeast and Midwest (see Figure 1).

Single Parents Reported High Rates of Receipt

As SNAP receipt dropped slightly nationwide, declines were fairly evenly distributed across different types of households. Figure 2, which shows rates of SNAP receipt by householders’ characteristics, indicates that rates remain especially high among single parents and non-white householders.

SNAP Receipt Among Working Households

Because SNAP is a program for low-income households, the population most traditionally linked with SNAP receipt is the poor.7 However, households that are “near poor” (that is, with gross incomes between 100 and 130 percent of the poverty line) are sometimes eligible for SNAP if their net monthly income is below the poverty line or if they meet certain age or disability conditions.8 While poor households still make up more than half of SNAP households (51.4 percent), this share is lower than in 2012 (52.0 percent). In other words, post-recession, SNAP receipt has become increasingly common among households whose income is just above the poverty line.

Possibly related to this trend is the fact that since the recession, around three-quarters of SNAP households report having one or more workers. The share hit 77.6 percent in 2013, up 0.9 percentage point over 2012. This increase was driven nearly exclusively by households in the suburbs, where the share rose to 79.6 percent, up 3.4 percentage points since 2012. These high shares of working households are also reflected in the median income of SNAP recipients, which is well below the national median but nevertheless nearly 17 percent (in constant dollars) higher than at the start of the recession (see Figure 3). It appears that while SNAP households have higher incomes than in earlier years, these incomes are insufficient for meeting family food needs. For instance, it is possible that the lowest income families are receiving other forms of aid (for example, subsidized housing or child care vouchers) not available to higher-earning households, which frees up more money for food purchases among lower earners, and leaves higher earners more reliant on SNAP. Indeed, the Economic Research Service found that SNAP-participating households were more likely to report very low food security than were nonparticipating households, suggesting that food insecure households more often enroll.9

Because this brief uses data collected throughout 2013, the effects of the cuts that began in November 2013 are not yet fully evident in our results. As debates continue and set the stage for reauthorization, the challenges of crafting fiscally responsible policy should be weighed carefully alongside the needs of the populations that use SNAP.
 

Box 1: Definition of Rural, Suburban, and City

Definitions of rural and urban vary among researchers and the sources of data they use. Data for this brief are derived from the American Community Survey, which identifies each household as being within one of several geographic components. As used here, “city” designates households in the principal city of a given metropolitan statistical area, and “suburban” includes those in metropolitan areas, but not within the principal city of that area. “Rural” consists of the addresses that are not within a metropolitan area.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Michael Ettlinger, Curt Grimm, Beth Mattingly, Michele Dillon, Amy Sterndale, Laurel Lloyd, and Bianca Nicolosi at the Carsey School of Public Policy for their helpful comments and suggestions, Jennifer Clayton for her assistance in preparing the data for publication, and Patrick Watson for his skillful editorial assistance.This work was supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and anonymous donors.

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About the Author(s)

Jessica Carson
Jess Carson is a Research Assistant Professor with the Vulnerable Families Research Program at the Carsey School of Public Policy. Since joining Carsey in 2010, she has studied poverty, work, and the social safety net, including policies and programs that support low-income workers like affordable health insurance, food assistance programs, and quality child care. Her other interests include health within and across families, and the intersection of health and employment across the income spectrum. Jess is also working on a long-term project around the challenges and opportunities facing people who live and work in rural communities, with the goal of highlighting the strategies that work best to support them. She has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Hampshire. Read More...
Paul Anskat
Paul Anskat joined the Carsey School of Public Policy in June 2014 as part of the Vulnerable Families research team. Read More...