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SNAP and the Recession

Recession and Recovery, No. 4

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Document date: December 22, 2008
Released online: December 22, 2008

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This brief, part of the Urban Institute's "Recession and Recover" series, examines how the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) responds during a recession and how that response may differ in the current recession from its response in the past.


On October 1, 2008, what had been the Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program now provides about 30 million Americans with monthly benefits, delivered electronically, that can be used to purchase food eaten at home. For most people, the eligibility tests are low incomes and low assets, but noncitizens must meet additional eligibility requirements.

In a recession, more people have incomes low enough to qualify for benefits, and some who were already eligible can receive bigger benefits, which makes them more likely to sign up. Figure l shows the link between unemployment and enrollment. Before 2003, the two rise and fall together, whether unemployment is measured by the number of people who are unemployed or by the unemployment rate. Figure 2 shows that, in each recession, the extra federal cost from additional enrollment was boosted by an increase in average benefits.

In addition to the strength of the economy, the impact of policy changes can be seen in the figures. Reagan administration cuts contributed to the drop in enrollment and spending after the 1980–82 recessions, as did welfare reform in the late 1990s. Similarly, new state policy options and administrative improvements aimed mainly at working families helped loosen the strong link between enrollment and unemployment after the 2001 recession (figure 1). What policy changes made it easier for working families juggling home, work, and school to get and keep SNAP? Disregarding the value of cars used to get to work when assessing a family’s assets was one. Opening SNAP offices early, late, and on weekends was another. Making it easier for families to find the forms, fill them out, and maintain program eligibility also helped.

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Topics/Tags: | Economy/Taxes | Employment | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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