Urban Wire How Should We View the Growth of Food Stamps Across the Nation?
Julia B. Isaacs
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The record-high number of Americans receiving food stamps has attracted attention in the presidential debates. Nearly 15 percent of the population—more than 46 million people—are currently receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the modern version of food stamps), based on average monthly recipient statistics for January–June 2012. This is a dramatic increase from the first half of 2007, when 9 percent of the population, or 26 million people, were receiving SNAP benefits. In total, caseloads grew by 77 percent over the past 5 years.

Almost half of SNAP participants are children, leading to the startling statistic that more than one in four American children receive food stamps. With monthly benefits averaging $277 per family, most recipients supplement their SNAP benefits with cash from paychecks and disability or retirement benefits to pay their grocery bills.

Some parts of the country draw more heavily on the federally funded SNAP program than others, even though all families must meet uniform national eligibility guidelines to participate. More than one-fifth of the population in Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia receives SNAP benefits. At the other extreme, the SNAP recipiency rate is less than 10 percent in Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Utah, and Wyoming (see figure below).

Economic conditions explain much of the recent growth in SNAP caseloads and the variation across states. SNAP caseloads rise with increases in unemployment and poverty, and fall as the economy recovers. Thus, we find very high SNAP recipiency rates in Mississippi and New Mexico, which also rank among the poorest states. In contrast, New Hampshire and New Jersey stand out as having both very low SNAP recipiency rates and low poverty rates.

Outreach and enrollment procedures also matter, however, as can be seen by comparing two neighboring states, Oregon and California. Both states have slightly higher than average poverty rates (17.5 and 16.6 percent, respectively), yet the SNAP recipiency rate is twice as high in Oregon as in California (21.9 vs. 10.4 percent). One possible reason that Oregon has the third highest recipiency rate in the nation is that its Department of Human Services, in collaboration with the Oregon Food Bank and a state Hunger Relief Task Force, undertook deliberate policy efforts to improve access and outreach for nutrition assistance, following Oregon’s high ranking in studies of food insecurity by state.

Alternatively, one could argue that Californians are more self-reliant and have stronger moral fiber than Oregonians. I doubt such an argument would be taken seriously when comparing states, but a tone of blame, and what many observers characterize as coded racism, does enter some of the political discourse about SNAP benefits. I would encourage readers to think about the high rates of SNAP participation relative to poverty in Oregon (and Maine and Vermont), and the much lower rates in California (and Colorado, Utah, and North Dakota), the next time they hear politicians hint that high use of SNAP benefits is a sign of unhealthy dependency. In my view, the rise in SNAP benefits is a sign of ongoing economic problems—and a sign that this critical element of the safety net is supporting millions of needy Americans.

Research Areas Social safety net
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population