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

March 24, 2016

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

  • SNAP is an efficient part of the nationwide safety net.  Payment accuracy — the delivery of the correct amount of benefits to eligible households — is near an all-time high.  For more on the program’s efficiency, see “SNAP Error Rates Remain Near All-Time Lows.”  

This chart book highlights some key characteristics of the 45 million people using the program as well as trends and data on program administration and use.  It complements more detailed analyses on particular aspects of SNAP, available on our website.


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



The number of people relying on SNAP rises during economic downturns and falls when the economy improves.  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 number of Americans who lost their jobs and the rising number struggling to make ends meet.  The number of individuals receiving SNAP in an average month rose from 26.3 million in 2007 to over 47 million in 2013, while poverty stayed high; it has since declined to about 45 million in the last months of 2015.



Both the number and share of eligible people participating in SNAP rose significantly during the Great Recession and stayed high during the slow recovery, driving SNAP caseload growth. Poverty and food insecurity both rose substantially in the recession and remained above pre-recession levels through 2014, making more people eligible for SNAP.  SNAP also reached a higher share of eligible people:  the participation rate among eligible individuals rose from 69 percent in 2007 to 85 percent in 2013 (the most recent year for which USDA estimates are available).

Emerging research on the Great Recession finds that economic factors (such as the unemployment rate) explain between about half and 90 percent of the increase in SNAP caseloads between 2007 and 2011.

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. 



As the effects of the economic recovery have been felt more broadly, SNAP caseloads have begun coming down.  Caseloads rose steadily during the recession and immediate aftermath, but growth slowed substantially in 2012 and 2013, and caseloads fell by about 2 percent in both 2014 and 2015.  For more than two years, fewer people have participated in SNAP each month than in the same month one year earlier; through November 2015, caseloads have fallen by about 2.5 million people since peaking in December 2012.

To the extent that SNAP caseload declines reflect improving economic circumstances among low-income households, they are welcome.  However, an austere provision in current law affecting some of the nation’s poorest individuals will also push down SNAP caseloads and costs.  Over the course of 2016, at least 500,000 and up to 1 million people will be cut off SNAP due to the return in many areas of a three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-49 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children.  Some states have already implemented this provision and have seen sharp caseload declines as a result.



Most states have falling caseloads.  Every state saw substantial SNAP caseload increases during the recession and slow recovery, when national caseloads were rising (that is, 2007 through 2012).  The trend has been less uniform across the states in the years since caseloads peaked.   

The share of the population participating in SNAP — a caseload measure that adjusts for population growth across the states — has fallen by at least 5 percent in 34 states, which together account for about 55 percent of the SNAP caseload.  In most of these states, caseloads have fallen steadily since peaking in 2012 or 2013.  In several large states, such as New York and California, caseloads as a share of population have fallen by less than 5 percent, have been essentially flat, or have grown somewhat.  Because these states as a whole account for a third of SNAP participants, they have a disproportionate impact on national caseloads.



SNAP spending, which also rose significantly in the recession, is falling as well.  SNAP spending as a share of the economy fell by 4 percent in 2015.  This followed an 11 percent drop in 2014, which reflected the end of the 2009 Recovery Act’s benefit increase as well as caseload decline.  The Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits to provide fast and effective economic stimulus and push against the rising tide of hardship for low-income Americans.  The increase ended in November 2013.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that, as the economy continues to recover, SNAP spending will fall to 1995 levels as a share of the economy by 2020. 

Once the economy has fully recovered, SNAP costs are expected to rise only in response to increases in food prices and the size of the low-income population.  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 only about $1.41 per person per meal.  In fiscal year 2014, the average SNAP household received about $253 a month, while the average recipient received about $125 a month — about $1.39 per meal.  Benefits remain at similar levels in fiscal year 2016—about $126 per person per month.

SNAP benefits are based on need:  very poor households receive larger benefits than households with more income 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 has no money for food and thus receives the maximum benefit amount, which equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size. 



Households spend their benefits quickly.  One way to assess SNAP households’ need is to measure how quickly they spend their benefits.  On average, within a week of receiving SNAP, SNAP households have redeemed over half of their SNAP allotments.  By the end of the second week, SNAP households have redeemed over three-quarters of their benefits. 

Part III: SNAP Helps Families Afford Adequate, Nutritious Food



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 recent study found that participating in SNAP reduced households’ food insecurity by about five to ten percentage points and reduced “very low food security,” which occurs when one or more household members have to skip meals or otherwise eat less because they lack money, by about five to six percentage points.  Because SNAP allows low-income households to spend more on food than their limited budgets would otherwise allow, it helps ensure that they have enough to eat.



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 very low food security among children by nearly one-third, from 9.5 percent to 6.4 percent. “Very low food security among children” describes a severe form of food insecurity, in which caregivers report that children skip meals or are hungry and don’t eat because their family cannot afford sufficient food.  



Increasing SNAP benefits can help families afford adequate food.  The share of households with food insecurity, including very low food security was expected to rise in 2009 due to the recession’s harsh impact on incomes and employment.  Yet very low food security actually fell that year —the year the Recovery Act’s SNAP benefit increase took effect — among households with incomes low enough to likely 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 Recovery Act’s benefit increase could have improved SNAP recipients’ food security.



Access to SNAP can improve health and educational outcomes.  Researchers comparing the long-term outcomes of individuals in different areas of the country when SNAP gradually expanded nationwide in the 1960s and early 1970s found that disadvantaged children who had access to food stamps (as they were then called) 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. 



SNAP households consume nutritious foods.  On a given day, a majority of SNAP participants consume at least one vegetable, grain, dairy, or meat product, and close to half consume at least one fruit or fruit juice.

SNAP participants’ diets are similar to other low-income individuals’.  Food consumption patterns are similar for SNAP households and otherwise-similar households that don’t receive SNAP, studies show.  For example, studies have found that after controlling for individual and household characteristics that influence consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as gender and education, SNAP participants are no more or less likely to consume these beverages than low-income non-participants, and their overall diets are not significantly different in terms of quality of nutrition.



Lowering the cost of fruits and vegetables can boost SNAP participants’ consumption of these healthy foods.  Under a recent pilot project that gave randomly selected SNAP participants 30 cents in added benefits for every dollar of SNAP they spent on certain fruits and vegetables, participants consumed almost 26 percent more of those items per day than SNAP recipients not selected to participate in the pilot. They also spent more on all fruits and vegetables.

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 ($24,250 for a family of four in 2015, and $11,770 for a person living alone, such as an elderly widow) while they are receiving SNAP.  Almost all of the rest have incomes between 100 and 130 percent of poverty.  Two of every five SNAP households have incomes below half of the poverty line (about $10,045 for a family of three in 2015).   

Roughly 93 percent of SNAP benefits go to households below the poverty line; 58 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.  In 2012 (the most recent year available), SNAP kept about 10.3 million people out of poverty , including about 4.9 million children, according to a CBPP analysis that uses the Supplemental Poverty Measure — which counts SNAP as income — and corrects for households’ underreporting of benefits.  This analysis also found that SNAP lifted 2.1 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 either aren’t expected to work or are working.  In a typical month of 2014, 66 percent of SNAP recipients weren’t expected to work because they were children, elderly, disabled, or caring for a disabled family member in their home or for a child under age 6 where another household member was working.  Children under age 18 constitute nearly half (44 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 before or 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. 



A growing share of SNAP households work in an average month while receiving SNAP.  Work rates have risen among all households, but especially among households with individuals who are able to work.  This overall trend has continued despite the large job losses in the Great Recession.  



SNAP helps working families make ends meet.  For a family of three with one full-time worker who earns $10 an hour, SNAP boosts the family’s take-home income by roughly 14 to 21 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 21 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’s 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.  For many of these families, SNAP is an important support while they are between jobs and looking for work; it doesn’t keep them from looking for work.  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 rates are high and have risen in the past decade, reflecting increased need, improved enrollment policies, and outreach efforts.  SNAP reached 85 percent of eligible individuals in a typical month in 2013 (the most recent year available).  That 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 74 percent between 2002 and 2013. 



Participation rates vary widely by state.  Some states serve a high percentage of eligible households, such as Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington.  Others serve a relatively low percentage, such as California, Nevada, North Dakota, 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 2013, 74 percent of the eligible working poor participated.  In 39 states and the District of Columbia, working-poor households participated at a lower rate than eligible households overall.



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 41 percent of eligible individuals over age 60 participated in 2013, though participation rates have risen modestly in recent years. 

Part VII: SNAP Is Efficient

SNAP’s error rates are near historic lows, 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 2.96 percent of total payments in 2014, while underpayments were 0.69 percent, for a net loss to the government due to errors of only 2.27 percent of program costs.  More than 99 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to eligible households. 

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



About 93 percent of federal SNAP spending goes for benefits to purchase food.  The rest 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 $76 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2015.  This also includes funding 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), and commodities for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

Part VIII: SNAP Is an Important Public-Private Partnership



SNAP boosts local economies.  Because most households redeem their monthly SNAP 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 if they stock a prescribed 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.  Participating retailers include superstores (like Wal-Mart), supermarkets, grocery stores, corner stores, and farmers’ markets.  Convenience stores are the largest single category, representing two-fifths of all SNAP retailers.



The number of SNAP retailers has risen considerably.  In 2014, about 261,000 retailers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits — 80 percent more than in 2003. 



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 14 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.