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SNAP Enrollment Is Still So High Because the Job Market Is Still So Bad

May 17, 2013 at 4:19 PM

My latest post for U.S. News & World Report’s Economic Intelligence blog addresses conservative critics’ argument that SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) is “broken” and must be “reformed.”  In reality, as our recent blog series shows, SNAP expanded as it’s supposed to during the severe recession of 2007-2009 and subsequent slow recovery and will shrink as the economy improves.

But why, as critics note, did SNAP enrollment continue rising after 2009, even as unemployment began to fall?  Because, it’s not unusual for poverty and hardship to continue rising even after unemployment peaks.

Moreover, the last few years have been very different from a typical recession and recovery, as our Legacy of the Great Recession chartbook shows.  The unemployment rate thus has been a relatively poor indicator of the state of the labor market, for two reasons in particular.

First, the unemployment rate doesn’t include the many people who want a job and would likely have one in a stronger labor market but haven’t looked enough to count as officially unemployed.  Nor does it include the many people who would like to work full time but can only find part-time work.

The graph below, which highlights the share of the population with a job (the so-called employment to population ratio), paints a grimmer picture of what’s happened to employment.  Part of the sharp decline reflects higher unemployment, but the rest reflects a decline in labor force participation.

The Labor Department estimates that 22 million Americans who want to work either don’t have a job or are working only part-time when they want to work full-time.

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Second, the unemployment rate doesn’t tell us about long-term unemployment — those out of work for at least 27 weeks — which remains historically high (see second graph).  With the deep and prolonged recession and weak recovery, SNAP has become increasingly valuable for the long-term unemployed, since it’s one of the few resources available for people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

In short, the number of people qualifying for and receiving SNAP benefits is still high because unusually high unemployment, reduced incomes, and limited job opportunities all persist.  The best way for policymakers to lower SNAP costs would be to aid the economic recovery to create jobs and boost incomes.

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