July 13, 2011

On Again, Off Again: "Churn" Among Food Stamp (SNAP) Participants

July 13, 2011

The Great Recession and the Not-So-Great Recovery have triggered enormous growth in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), once called Food Stamps.  Unquestionably, the program has buffered the nation’s recessionary jolt and has averted food insecurity and material hardship.  As of April 2011, more than 45 million persons—one in seven—are receiving SNAP benefits.  With the recession officially ending in June 2009, some states—New Jersey, New Mexico, and Maryland—have seen subsequent growth rates in SNAP enrollment of more than 20 percent (for April 2010-April 2011).

Large cities are experiencing even higher SNAP growth, with year-over-year caseload increases topping 30 percent (for May 2009-May 2010) in such major metros as Houston, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Wichita.   For some of these cities, the growth reflects catch-up from previously below-average SNAP participation rates (recipients as a share of program-eligible individuals).   As measured in 2008, participation rates were below the national average of 67 percent in San Diego (40 percent), Houston (60 percent), and Las Vegas (64 percent).  This pattern of catch-up growth in major cities is in part responsible for the desired increases in the national SNAP participation rate over the past decade, from a low of 54 percent recorded in 2002 following the nation’s prior recession.

So is SNAP doing its job?  Mostly yes, but a troubling problem is “churn”: recipients who leave the program and then re-enter within four months.  To some degree, churn means that the program is responding, as intended, to fluctuating incomes and shifting household arrangements.   But many churners qualify for benefits when they are cut off for procedural reasons, perhaps missing an appointment or omitting a form.  These households, often with children, aren’t getting the steady stream of help for which they’re otherwise eligible.

Many program practitioners think  that churn among benefit-eligible households  is becoming more prevalent.  If so, churn makes it even harder to achieve further progress in raising the national participation rate so that more of those who need help from SNAP will receive it.  The prevailing policy concern focuses not only on benefit loss among needy clients but also on added administrative costs, as state and local workers spend countless hours to reopen cases when these clients re-apply a few months later.  (The federal government covers only 50 percent of the program’s administrative costs, versus 100 percent of the benefits.)

Many states are streamlining administrative procedures to reduce the time, expense, and hassle of households’ becoming initially certified and then periodically recertified for benefits—e.g., through on-line applications, simplified rules for reporting changes in earnings, and not requiring face-to-face interviews at recertification.  More can—and should—be done to help low-income families get and keep the nutritional support they need and are entitled to receive.

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