Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food on the Table

Updated March 28, 2013

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. 

  • SNAP reaches millions of people in need of food assistance.  It is one of the few means-tested government benefit programs available to almost all households with low incomes.  For more detail on the program’s basics, see http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226.
  • SNAP is an efficient part of the nationwide safety net.  Payment accuracy – the delivery of the correct amount of benefits to eligible households – is at an all-time high.  For more on the program’s efficiency, see http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3239.

This chartbook highlights some of the key characteristics of the approximately 46 million people using the program as well as trends and data on program administration and use. 

Part I:  SNAP Is Highly Responsive to Poverty and the Economy
Part II: Benefits Are Modest
Part III:  Benefits Help Families Afford Nutritious Food
Part IV:  SNAP Serves Very Vulnerable People
Part V:  SNAP Supports Working Families and Those Unable to Work
Part VI:  With Some Important Exceptions, SNAP Reaches Most Eligible People
Part VII:  SNAP Is Efficient and Effective
Part VIII:  SNAP Is an Important Public/Private Partnership

It is intended to complement more detailed analysis on particular aspects of SNAP, available on our website: (http://www.cbpp.org/research/index.cfm?fa=topic&id=31).

 

Part I: SNAP is Highly Responsive to Changes in Poverty and the Economy

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During economic downturns, more people rely on SNAP.  After unemployment insurance, SNAP historically has been the most responsive federal program in assisting families and communities during economic downturns. The recent downturn was no exception. SNAP grew rapidly between 2008 and 2011, reflecting the rising numbers of Americans who lost their jobs and the rising number who were struggling to make ends meet. The number of individuals receiving SNAP in an average month grew from 26.3 million in 2007 to over 46 million in 2011. SNAP enrollment growth slowed in 2012, however, as the economy began to recover.

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The recession increased the number of eligible households, driving the recent rapid caseload growth.  Poverty has increased substantially, from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2011, resulting in more households qualifying for the program.  And, the deep and prolonged nature of the recession has led to record levels of long-term unemployment, extending the length of time that unemployed individuals have needed SNAP.  Between 2007 and 2010, as the unemployment rate more than doubled (from 4.6 percent to 9.6 percent), SNAP participation grew 56 percent. 

Another factor driving the program’s recent growth is that a larger share of eligible households is participating in SNAP. (The increasing participation rates among eligible individuals are discussed below, in Section VI.)  A final contributor to growth in SNAP spending was the 2009 Recovery Act, which increased SNAP benefits as a way of delivering economic stimulus.  Policymakers deemed SNAP to be effective for this purpose because of its broad reach among low-income populations and its high efficiency.

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The recent growth in SNAP spending is temporaryJust as SNAP participation expands during economic downturns, it contracts when the economy recovers and circumstances improve for some low-income households.  In addition, the temporary benefit boost from the Recovery Act is slated to end abruptly in November 2013.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that SNAP spending will fall to 1995 levels as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2019.  Unlike health care programs and Social Security, demographic or programmatic pressures will not cause SNAP costs to grow faster than the economy over the long term.  SNAP thus is not contributing to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. 

Part II:  Benefits Are Modest

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SNAP benefits are modest.  The average SNAP household received about $278 a month in benefits in fiscal year 2012.  The average recipient received about $133 a month (or about $1.48 per meal).  SNAP targets benefits according to need:  very poor households receive larger benefits than households closer to the poverty line since they need more help affording an adequate diet.  The benefit formula assumes that families will spend 30 percent of their net income for food; SNAP provides enough additional benefits to meet the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, the lowest-cost nutritionally adequate diet established by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit amount, which usually equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size (since they have no income to spend on food).  In 2011, close to 60 percent of participating households received less than the maximum benefit.

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The 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent for all SNAP households.  Most households received an additional $20 to $24 per person per month in fiscal years 2009 through 2011 and smaller increases in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

The Recovery Act called for SNAP benefits to remain at their new, higher level until the program’s regular annual inflation adjustments overtook it.  However, as a result of legislation passed in 2010, the increase will terminate in November 2013, causing a sizeable and abrupt benefit reduction for all households on the program.  Based on CBO’s latest food inflation projections, for families of three, the cut likely will be $20 to $25 a month.  That is a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits.  Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits average only about $1.40 per person per meal.

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Households spend their benefits quickly.  Another way of assessing SNAP households’ need is how quickly they spend their benefits.  Within a week of receiving benefits, the average household redeems over half of its allotment, while more than a quarter use all or nearly all of the benefits.  By the second week, the average household redeems over three-quarters of its allotment and more than half use all or nearly all of it.

Part III:  Benefits Help Families Afford Nutritious Food

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SNAP enables households to purchase nutritious foods.  SNAP recipients spend over 85 percent of benefits on fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and meat alternatives.  The purchasing patterns of SNAP households mirror those of other low- and moderate-income households. 

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SNAP helps families make sure they can put food on the table.  Several studies have found that SNAP benefits can decrease food insecurity, when households have limited or inconsistent access to nutritious food because of limited resources.  One study found that after adjusting for data issues, SNAP benefits can reduce food insecurity among high-risk children by 20 percent and can improve their overall health by 35 percent.

Another study provided households with students who receive free or reduced-price school meals during the school year with SNAP benefits during the summer.  Those SNAP benefits cut the share of children who had to skip meals or otherwise eat less because they lacked money (what USDA calls “very low food security”) by nearly one-fifth, from 6.7 percent to 5.5 percent.  The share of children whose families had trouble affording sufficient food fell by nearly a fifth as well, from 37.6 percent to 31.0 percent.

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One study of the impacts of the increase in SNAP benefits from the Recovery Act found that the prevalence of very low food security of households with incomes eligible for SNAP (130 percent of poverty and less) decreased from 2008 to 2009 (from before and after ARRA implementation).  The percent of households with very low food security was expected to increase due to changes in income and employment resulting from the recession, yet it decreased; this decline was not shown among households with higher income.  This impact, along with increases in participation and increased spending on food from this population, suggests that SNAP benefits can be effective at ensuring that households have enough to eat.

Part IV:   SNAP Serves Very Vulnerable People

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SNAP households have very low incomes.  Over 80 percent of households that receive benefits have gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four in 2012, and $11,500 for a person living alone, such as an elderly widow), and almost all of the rest have incomes between 100 and 130 percent of poverty.  Fewer than 5 percent (4.8 percent) of households have gross income above 130 percent of poverty; of those, over half contain individuals who are elderly or have a disability.

Two of every five SNAP households have incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,750 for a family of three).   

Roughly 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households below the poverty line; 55 percent go to households with incomes below half of the poverty line.

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SNAP plays a major role in helping some households lift themselves out of poverty.  By providing benefits that must be used to purchase food, SNAP can be an important part of a low-income household’s budget.  A CBPP analysis using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts SNAP as income, found that SNAP kept about 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including about 2.1 million children.  SNAP also lifted 1.5 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2011, more than any other government assistance program.

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SNAP is a powerful antidote to extreme poverty.  The number of extremely poor families — those living on less than $2 per person a day — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, to 1.46 million.  The number of extremely poor children also doubled, to 2.8 million.  But, counting SNAP benefits as income reduces the number of households in extreme poverty in 2011 from 1.46 million to nearly 800,000.  And it cuts the number of children in extreme poverty in 2011 in half — from 2.8 million to 1.4 million.

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The overwhelming majority of SNAP participants are poor families with children, seniors, or people with disabilities.  Close to half of all participants are children, and over half of all non-elderly, non-disabled adult participants live with children. 

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SNAP serves particularly vulnerable families.  Nearly 90 percent of participants are in households that contain a child under age 18, an elderly person 60 years or older, or a disabled individual. 

Part V:  SNAP Supports Working Families and Those Unable to Work

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Most SNAP participants are either not expected to work or are working.  In a typical month of 2011, 68 percent of SNAP recipients were not expected to work because they were children, elderly, disabled, or were caring for a disabled family member in their home or for a child under 6 where another household member was working.  Children under the age of 18 constitute nearly half (45 percent) of all SNAP participants.

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Work rates among SNAP households that can work are high.  SNAP has become increasingly effective in supporting work among households who can work.  Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.  The rates are even higher for families with children — more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year. 

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The share of SNAP households that work has risen steadily.  While many families on SNAP work, many others recently lost their jobs and rely on SNAP to feed their children while they look for work.  Over the last decade, the number of households that were working while receiving SNAP more than tripled.

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Despite the large jump in unemployment during the recession, the share of SNAP families with earnings has continued to increase in recent years.  This suggests that for a growing share of the nation’s workers, having a job has not been enough to keep them out of poverty.

SNAP helps low-wage working families make ends meet.  For a family of three with one worker who earns $10 an hour, SNAP increases the family’s take-home income by roughly 10 to 20 percent, depending on the number of hours worked.  For instance, a mother with two children who works 35 hours a week increases her monthly income by 20 percent when adding her SNAP benefits.

In addition, the SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive:  for every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her SNAP benefits decline by only 24 to 36 cents.  Families that receive SNAP thus have a strong incentive to work more hours or search for better-paying employment.

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There is no evidence that receiving SNAP discourages work effort.  Most non-disabled, working-age households that worked in the year before receiving SNAP do not stop working after receiving benefits.  Some decline in work may be expected because a job loss is likely to be the reason that a person’s income fell and they qualified for and began to receive SNAP in the first place.  Nonetheless, prior to the recession, only 4 percent of SNAP households that worked in the year before starting to receive SNAP did not work in the following year.

Part VI:  With Some Important Exceptions, SNAP Reaches Most Eligible People

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SNAP participation is strong.  Nationwide, the program reached 75 percent of all eligible individuals in a typical month in 2010 (the most recent year available).

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Participation rates have increased over the past decade, reflecting increased need, improved enrollment policies, and outreach efforts. The current rate of 75 percent represents a significant improvement from 2001, when the participation rate bottomed out at 54 percent.  The participation rate among eligible low-income working families rose from 43 percent in 2002 to about 65 percent in 2010. 

In addition, SNAP provided 94 percent of the benefits that all eligible individuals could receive.  This is because the neediest individuals, who are eligible for higher benefits, participated at higher rates than other eligible persons.

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SNAP does not reach all types of households equally well.  Families with children participate at high rates; seniors and nondisabled childless adults participate at relatively low rates.  Eligible seniors, who face unique barriers accessing and applying for benefits, are particularly underserved.  

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SNAP participation rates vary widely from state to state.  Some states consistently serve a high percentage of eligible households (such as Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington), while some states consistently serve a low percentage of eligible households (such as California, Kansas, Texas, and Wyoming).  In all states, however, more than 50 percent of eligible individuals participate. 

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The working poor are underserved in SNAP.  Even though SNAP provides an important support for the working poor, this population is often particularly hard to reach.  In 2010, only 65 percent of the eligible working poor participated.  In 33 states, working-poor households participated at a lower rate than all eligible households.

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Seniors are underserved in SNAP.  Many low-income seniors struggle to get by on low, fixed incomes and have critical unmet dietary needs but do not participate in SNAP.  Only 35 percent of eligible individuals over age 60 participated in 2010, though participation rates have increased modestly in recent years.  Nationally in 2011, 68 percent of elderly SNAP participants were in poverty, 72 percent were in one-person SNAP households, and 40 percent were in households where someone received Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Part VII:  SNAP Is Efficient and Effective

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SNAP achieved its lowest error rates on record in fiscal year 2011, even as caseloads were rising and administrative resources were strained.  SNAP has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program, and one of the best records of accuracy in providing benefits only to eligible households of any government program.

Each year, states pull a representative sample (totaling about 50,000 cases nationally) and thoroughly review the accuracy of the eligibility and benefit decision.  Federal officials re-review a subsample of the cases to ensure accuracy in the error rates.  States face financial penalties if their error rates are persistently higher than the national average.

Overpayments were 2.99 percent of total payments in 2011, while underpayments were 0.81 percent, for a net loss due to errors of only 2.18 percent of program costs.

Also, about half of over­payments result from eligible low-income households getting benefits that are modestly in error, rather than from ineligible households participating.  Put simply, program errors are not driving up SNAP spending. 

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Almost 95 percent of federal spending on SNAP goes toward providing benefits to eligible households to purchase food.   Most of the remaining 5 percent goes toward administrative costs, including reviews to determine that applicants are eligible, monitoring of retailers that accept SNAP, and anti-fraud activities.  The federal government spent about $78 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2012. 

In addition, under the full SNAP “budget account,” about $2.5 billion went for other food assistance programs, such as the block grant for food assistance in Puerto Rico and American Samoa, commodity purchases for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (which helps food pantries and soup kitchens across the country), and commodities for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

Part VIII:  SNAP Is an Important Public-Private Partnership

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Food stores can participate in SNAP so long as they stock a minimum variety of foods and provide adequate information on the nature and scope of their business.  This ensures that SNAP participants can redeem benefits in many of the stores and settings available to typical consumers, though there are geographical areas with few or no authorized retailers.  The majority of authorized retailers are superstores (like Wal-Mart), supermarkets, grocery stores, or combination stores (where food sales do not comprise the majority of total sales, such as some department stores).  The largest single category of store, comprising over one-third of all retailers, is convenience stores.

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The number of food retailers participating in SNAP has risen.  In 2011, 231,000 retailers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits.  Between 2006 and 2011, the number of authorized retailers rose by 43 percent, with a significant increase in the number of convenience stores.  In 2010 alone, almost 23,000 new retailers were added, 12,000 of which were convenience stores.

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SNAP households primarily shop at large grocery stores and superstores.  Participants redeem over 80 percent of their benefits at superstores (such as warehouse clubs and big-box retailers), supermarkets, and grocery stores, even though these stores comprise 16 percent of all available retailers.  Superstores alone redeem almost half of all benefits.  While over a third of all retailers are convenience stores, they are a minor source of food for participants, redeeming only 5 percent of SNAP benefits.

SNAP provides an economic boost to the community.  Because most households redeem their monthly benefits quickly, SNAP is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus during an economic downturn.  Economists estimate that in a weak economy, for every dollar that households redeem under SNAP, the gross domestic product increases by about $1.70.  The Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.

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