Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food on the Table
March 1, 2017
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program.
- SNAP reaches millions of people who need food assistance. It’s one of the few means-tested government benefit programs available to almost all households with low incomes. For basic information on the program, see “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”
- SNAP promotes long-term health and well-being, especially for children. Research shows that SNAP reduces poverty and food insecurity, and that over the long-term, these impacts lead to improved health and economic outcomes, especially for those who receive SNAP as children. For more on the long-term impacts of SNAP, see “SNAP Works for America’s Children.”
This chart book highlights some key characteristics of the 40 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.
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, as the recession and lagging recovery led more low-income households to qualify and apply for help.
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 2015, 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 83 percent in 2014 (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 over the same time period.
As the effects of the economic recovery have been felt more broadly, SNAP caseloads have begun coming down, and this decline accelerated in 2016. 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 2014 and another 2 percent in 2015. SNAP participation declined at a faster rate in 2016. The number of SNAP participants in an average month of 2016 was 3.4 percent lower than in 2015. SNAP caseloads fell by about 1 million people in both 2014 and 2015, but by 1.5 million people in 2016. Through September 2016, caseloads have fallen by about 4.3 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 affecting some of the nation’s poorest individuals also reduced SNAP caseloads in 2016. Over the course of 2016, at least 500,000 people lost 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.
The return of the three-month time limit in January 2016 in 21 states contributed to falling caseloads, particularly beginning in April, when those newly subject to the time limit began exhausting their three months of benefits. Eight of the ten states with the largest percentage caseload drop in April implemented the time limit in January, including Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas. Caseloads fell by 2.8 percent in the states that began cutting people off SNAP in April due to time limits; caseloads fell 0.8 percent in the other states.
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 since caseloads peaked in December 2012.
The share of the population participating in SNAP — a caseload measure that adjusts for population growth across the states — has fallen by at least 10 percent in 26 states, which together account for over half of the SNAP caseload. In most of these states, caseloads have fallen steadily since peaking in 2012 or 2013. In the remaining 19 states, SNAP caseloads have fallen by less than 10 percent or have grown somewhat. This group includes several states where SNAP has been declining steadily for some time but at a slower rate (such as New York), and others (such as Illinois) where declines began more recently (in late 2014 or 2015), and as a result caseloads have not fallen as significantly. Because some of the states that have been declining less or growing are larger states, they have a disproportionate impact on national SNAP caseloads.
SNAP spending, which also rose significantly in the recession, is falling as well. SNAP spending fell for the third straight year in 2016. Spending rose during the recession both due to increased participation and a temporary benefit increase from the 2009 Recovery Act. 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 Recovery Act benefit boost raised SNAP spending (above what it otherwise would have been) by over $40 billion, before ending early in fiscal year 2014. The increase ended in November 2013, and spending has fallen due to the decline in participation and the expiration of the benefit increase. 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.
SNAP benefits average only about $1.39 per person per meal. In fiscal year 2016, the average SNAP household received about $255 a month, while the average recipient received about $126 a month — about $1.39 per meal.
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.
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 9.7 percent to 6.6 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.
Raising SNAP benefits would increase low-income households’ spending on food and improve the nutritional quality of their diets. A growing body of research documents that SNAP benefits are inadequate to fully meet the nutritional needs of eligible households. A recent study found that if low-income households received an additional $30 per month per person in SNAP benefits (which would be about a 20 percent increase in the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for SNAP benefits), their food spending would rise by about $19 per person, based on the food spending patterns of households with somewhat more resources. (Food spending would rise by less than the SNAP benefit increase, even though SNAP can be spent only on food, because the added benefits would free up household income for other necessities such as utility bills or non-food groceries that SNAP doesn’t cover.) That increase in food spending, in turn, would raise consumption of more nutritious foods; notably vegetables and certain healthy sources of protein (such as poultry and fish), and lower consumption of fast food, for example. The increased food spending also would reduce food insecurity among SNAP recipients.
The overwhelming majority of SNAP participants are 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 an individual with disabilities.
SNAP households have very low incomes. Over 80 percent of SNAP households have gross incomes at or below the poverty line ($24,300 for a family of four in 2016, and $11,880 for a person living alone, such as an elderly widow) while they are receiving SNAP. Almost all of the rest have incomes between 101 and 130 percent of poverty. Two of every five SNAP households have incomes at or below half of the poverty line (about $10,080 for a family of three in 2016).
Some 92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households below the poverty line; 57 percent go to households with incomes at or 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 2014 (the most recent year available), SNAP kept about 8.4 million people out of poverty, including about 3.8 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 2014, 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, when combined with supports like housing assistance and refundable tax credits, cuts the number of extremely poor children by more than half (from 3.6 million to 1.2 million).
Most SNAP participants either aren’t expected to work or are working. In a typical month of 2015, 67 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.
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, and fell slightly in 2014 to 83 percent (the most recent year available) as the economy had improved and eligible people may have been somewhat less likely to apply. 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 70 percent between 2002 and 2014.
Participation rates vary widely by state. Some states serve a high percentage of eligible households, such as Michigan, Oregon, Vermont, 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 in many states. Even though SNAP provides an important support for the working poor, this population is often particularly hard to reach. In 2014, 70 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 42 percent of eligible individuals over age 60 participated in 2014, though participation rates have risen modestly in recent years.
SNAP’s error rates have fallen significantly. 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.
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 $73 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2016. 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.
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 nearly half of all SNAP retailers. Stores that combine grocery and other retail store formats represent nearly a quarter of all SNAP retailers. Farmers’ markets, commissaries, wholesalers, food co-operatives and meal service facilities comprise about 5 percent.
The number of SNAP retailers has risen considerably. In 2015, about 260,000 retailers were authorized to accept SNAP benefits — 79 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 over half of all benefits.
While nearly half of SNAP retailers are convenience stores, they are a minor source of food for participants, redeeming only 6 percent of SNAP benefits.