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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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