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

Updated June 4, 2014

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

This chart book highlights some key characteristics of the more than 47 million people using the program as well as trends and data on program administration and use. 

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

It is intended to complement more detailed analyses on particular aspects of SNAP, available on our website.

 

Part I: SNAP Responds to Changes in Poverty and the Economy

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 Great Recession 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 47 million in 2013.  

U.S. Agriculture Department research has found that on average, SNAP participation rises during economic downturns by an average of 2 to 3 million people for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate.  From 2008 to 2010, this relationship was similar to past recessions, at about 2.7 million new SNAP participants per percentage-point increase in unemployment.

The recession drove SNAP’s rapid caseload growth by making many more households eligible for help.  Poverty rose substantially in the recession, from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2012.  Also, the unemployment rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2010 (from 4.6 percent to 9.6 percent), a period in which SNAP caseloads grew 56 percent. 

A recent study found that the large rise in unemployment explains from two-thirds to 96 percent of the increase in SNAP caseloads during the recession.  Some of the states hit hardest by the recession saw the largest SNAP caseload increases.  For example, the four states with the biggest growth in the number of unemployed workers between 2007 and 2011 — Nevada, Florida, Idaho, and Utah — also had the biggest growth in the number of SNAP recipients.

Another factor driving SNAP’s growth was a rise in participation among eligible households, as Section VI explains.  A final contributor was the 2009 Recovery Act, which temporarily boosted SNAP benefits to deliver economic stimulus; policymakers deemed SNAP to be effective for this purpose because of its broad reach among low-income populations and its high efficiency.

As the economy has improved, SNAP caseloads have started to fall.  While growth over the same month in the previous year reached up to 24 percent in mid-2009, growth slowed through 2012 and is now negative:  according to recent data, fewer people participated in SNAP in each of the last four months of 2013 than in the same months of 2012.  More than 1.6 million fewer people participated in SNAP in February 2014 than when participation peaked in December 2012.  This flattening of participation follows the pattern of previous recessions.  

SNAP spending, which rose significantly in the recession, is also starting to fall.  SNAP spending, which doubled as a share of the economy (gross domestic product or GDP) in the wake of the Great Recession, fell slightly as a share of GDP in fiscal year 2013, which ended September 30.  In addition, due to both declining participation and the November 2013 expiration of the Recovery Act benefit boost (which cut benefits by about 7 percent, on average), SNAP spending will fall by an estimated $5 billion in fiscal year 2014.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that, as the economy continues to recover, SNAP spending will fall to 1995 levels as a share of GDP by 2019. 

Once the economy has fully recovered, SNAP costs are expected to rise only in response to growth in the size of the low-income population and increases in food prices.  Unlike health care programs and Social Security, SNAP doesn’t face demographic or programmatic pressures that would cause its costs to grow faster than the economy over the long term.  SNAP thus doesn’t contribute to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. 

 

Part II:  Benefits Are Modest

SNAP benefits average less than $1.50 per person per meal.  The average SNAP household received about $275 a month in benefits in fiscal year 2013.  The average recipient received about $133 a month (about $1.48 per meal).  Benefits then declined when the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary benefit increase expired in November 2013 (see below).

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 Agriculture Department’s estimate of a bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet.

A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit amount, which equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size (since they have no income to spend on food).  In 2012, about 60 percent of participating households received less than the maximum benefit. 

The Recovery Act’s benefit increase expired last year.  The increase, 13.6 percent for all SNAP households, amounted to $20 to $24 per person per month for most households in fiscal years 2009 through 2013 though it declined in real value over time.

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, legislation passed in 2010 terminated the increase on November 1, 2013, causing a sizeable and abrupt benefit reduction for all SNAP households in every state except Hawaii.

In November 2013, the first month without the benefit boost, average benefits declined by about 7 percent from October.  The average household lost $19 that month — equivalent to ten meals — and the average benefit per person per meal fell from about $1.48 to $1.39.

Households spend their benefits quickly.  One way to assess SNAP households’ need is to measure how quickly they spend their benefits.  Within a week of receiving SNAP, the average household redeems over half of its allotment, while more than a quarter of households use all or nearly all of their benefits.  By the end of 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 Adequate, Nutritious Food

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

SNAP helps families put sufficient food on the table.  Studies have found that SNAP benefits reduce food insecurity, which occurs when households lack consistent access to nutritious food because of limited resources.  One study found that SNAP benefits can reduce food insecurity among high-risk children by 20 percent and improve their overall health by 35 percent.

Another study found that providing SNAP benefits over the summer to households with students who had received free or reduced-price school meals during the previous school year cut the share of children who had to skip meals or otherwise eat less because they lacked money (what the Agriculture Department calls “very low food security”) by nearly one-third, from 9.5 percent to 6.4 percent.  It also cut the share of children whose families had trouble affording sufficient food by nearly a fifth, from 44.6 percent to 36.2 percent.

SNAP helps reduce food insecurity.  Another recent study found that participating in SNAP reduced food insecurity by about 5 to 10 percentage points (both among households overall and among households where the children were food insecure) and reduced very low food security by about 5 to 6 percentage points.  Because SNAP allows low-income households to spend more of their limited budgets on food, it helps ensure that they have enough to eat.

Strengthening SNAP benefits can reduce food insecurity.  The share of households with very low food security was expected to rise in 2009 — the year the Recovery Act’s SNAP benefit increase took effect — due to the recession’s harsh impact on incomes and employment.  Yet very low food security actually fell that year among households with incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP (130 percent of poverty or less).  Among households with somewhat higher incomes, in contrast, very low food security rose in 2009 as expected.  This evidence suggests that the increase in benefits from the Recovery Act improved SNAP recipients’ food security.   

Weakening SNAP benefits can increase food insecurity.  Just as increasing the value of SNAP benefits contributed to a decrease in very low food security among likely SNAP recipients, declining benefits have also shown to increase very low food security.  As food inflation eroded the value of the Recovery Act’s temporary benefit boost between 2009 and 2011, very low food security began to rise among low-income SNAP households, from 12.1 percent in 2009 to 13.8 percent in 2011.  Very low food security did not rise among low-income households not receiving SNAP.

Access to SNAP can improve health and educational outcomes.  A recent study of what happened when SNAP gradually expanded nationwide in the 1960s and early 1970s found that disadvantaged children who had access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had access during their pregnancy had better health and educational outcomes as adults than children who didn’t have access to food stamps.

Among other things, children with access to food stamps were less likely in adulthood to have stunted growth, be diagnosed with heart disease, or be obese.  They also were more likely to graduate from high school. 

 

Part IV:  SNAP Serves Very Vulnerable People

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.

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. 

SNAP households have very low incomes.  Over 80 percent of SNAP households have gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four in 2014, and $11,670 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.  Only 5.2 percent of households have gross incomes 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 $9,895 for a family of three in 2014).   

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.

SNAP helps millions of households lift themselves out of poverty.  By providing benefits that must be used to purchase food, SNAP is 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 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including about 2.2 million children.  SNAP also lifted 1.4 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2012, more than any other government assistance program.

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 and the number of extremely poor children doubled.  However, counting SNAP benefits as income cuts the number of extremely poor households in 2011 by nearly half (from 1.6 million to 857,000) and cuts the number of extremely poor children by more than half (from 3.6 million to 1.2 million).

 

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

Most SNAP participants are either not expected to work or are working.  In a typical month of 2012, 66 percent of SNAP recipients were not expected to work because they were children, elderly, disabled, or caring for a disabled family member in their home or for a child under 6 where another household member was working.  Children under age 18 constitute nearly half (44.5 percent) of all SNAP participants.

Work rates are high among SNAP households that can work.  SNAP has become increasingly effective at supporting work among households that can work.  More than half of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult 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. 

The number of SNAP households that work has risen steadily.  While many families on SNAP recently lost their jobs and rely on SNAP while they look for work, a growing number of low-wage working families rely on SNAP to help make ends meet.  Over the last decade, the number of households that were working while receiving SNAP more than tripled.

Over half of all SNAP households with children and an able-bodied adult work in an average month.  While work rates have risen among all households, they have risen especially for households with individuals who are able to work, even during the recession, when jobs became more scarce.  

SNAP helps working families make ends meet.  For a family of three with one worker who earns $10 an hour, SNAP boosts 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 jobs.

There is no evidence that receiving SNAP discourages work.  The vast majority of non-disabled, working-age households that worked in the year before receiving SNAP continue working after starting to receive benefits.  Some decline in work participation may be expected because many people qualify for SNAP in the first place because they lost their jobs.  Nonetheless, prior to the recession, only 4 percent of SNAP households that worked in the year before starting to receive SNAP didn’t work the following year.

 

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

SNAP participation is strong.  Nationwide, the program reached 79 percent of all eligible individuals in a typical month in 2011 (the most recent year available).  In addition, SNAP provided 92 percent of the benefits that all eligible individuals could receive in 2011.  This is because the neediest individuals, who are eligible for higher benefits, participated at higher rates than other eligible persons.

Participation rates have increased over the past decade, reflecting increased need, improved enrollment policies, and outreach efforts.  The current 79 percent rate represents a significant improvement from 2001, when participation bottomed out at 54 percent.  Among eligible individuals in low-income working families, participation rose from 43 percent to about 67 percent between 2002 and 2011. 

Participation rates vary widely from state to state.  Some states serve a high percentage of eligible households, such as Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.  Some states serve a low percentage of eligible households, such as California, Colorado, Hawaii, and Wyoming.  In every state, however, more than 50 percent of eligible individuals participate. 

The working poor are underserved.  Even though SNAP provides an important support for the working poor, this population is often particularly hard to reach.  In 2011, only 67 percent of the eligible working poor participated.  In 38 states and the District of Columbia, working-poor households participated at a lower rate than all eligible households.

Participation rates also vary by type of household.  Families with children participate at high rates; seniors and working families participate at relatively low rates.  Eligible seniors, who face unique barriers accessing and applying for benefits, are particularly underserved.  

Seniors are underserved.  Many low-income seniors who struggle to get by on low, fixed incomes and have critical unmet dietary needs don’t participate in SNAP.  Only 39 percent of eligible individuals over age 60 participated in 2011, though participation rates have increased modestly in recent years. 

 

Part VII:  SNAP Is Efficient and Effective

SNAP achieved its lowest error rates on record in fiscal year 2012, despite rising caseloads and strained administrative resources.  SNAP has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program.  It also has one of the best records of accuracy in providing benefits only to eligible households.

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

Overpayments represented 2.77 percent of total payments in 2012, while underpayments were 0.65 percent, for a net loss due to errors of only 2.12 percent of program costs.  About half of over­payments occur when eligible low-income households get benefits that are modestly too high, rather than when ineligible households participate. 

Put simply, program errors are not a significant factor in SNAP spending. 

About 92 percent of federal SNAP spending goes for benefits to purchase food.  Another 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 rest goes 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.

The federal government spent about $82.5 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2013. 

 

Part VIII:  SNAP Is an Important Public-Private Partnership

SNAP boosts local economies.  Because most households redeem their monthly benefits quickly, SNAP is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus during a downturn.  Economists estimate that in a weak economy, every dollar that households redeem under SNAP expands the economy by about $1.70. 

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 other consumers, though some geographic areas have few or no authorized retailers.  Retailers include superstores (like Wal-Mart), supermarkets, grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers’ markets.  Convenience stores are the largest single category of store, comprising over one-third of all SNAP retailers.

The number of SNAP retailers has risen.  In 2012, 246,000 retailers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits — 70 percent more than in 2003.  The number of authorized convenience stores rose significantly over this period.  In 2012 alone, SNAP added over 15,000 new retailers, close to 9,000 of which were convenience stores.

SNAP households spend most of their benefits 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 only 15 percent of all available retailers.  Superstores alone redeem almost half of all benefits. 

While over a third of SNAP retailers are convenience stores, they are a minor source of food for participants, redeeming only 5 percent of SNAP benefits.

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