BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The number of SNAP (formerly food stamps) recipients is now below 43 million -- a decline of almost 5 million people (or 10 percent) since the December 2012 peak -- new Agriculture Department data for December 2016 show. (See chart.) Though most of the drop since 2012 is because fewer Americans need SNAP due to an improving economy, SNAP caseload declines accelerated in 2016 in part because a three-month SNAP time limit for unemployed childless adults returned in many states last year, cutting off food assistance for at least 500,000 people.
The share of the population participating in SNAP has fallen to 2010 levels, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that it will keep falling. SNAP caseload declines since December 2012 have been widespread; the share of the population receiving SNAP was lower in December 2016 in 49 states (including the District of Columbia and Guam, which SNAP counts as states).
SNAP grew significantly between 2007 and 2012 as millions more people became eligible due to the Great Recession and lagging recovery, and as participation among those eligible also rose. SNAP spending, in turn, grew during and after the recession due to the greater number of SNAP participants as well as a temporary benefit boost from the 2009 Recovery Act. Like the caseload trend, however, SNAP spending has also fallen. SNAP spending in 2016 fell to its lowest point since 2010, and more than 11 percent below 2013 peak levels — and that’s in nominal, not inflation-adjusted, dollars.
As the economic recovery continues and fewer low-income people qualify for SNAP, CBO expects SNAP spending as a share of the economy (gross domestic product, or GDP) to fall further in future years, returning to its 1995 level by 2020. Thus, SNAP isn’t contributing to the nation’s long-term budget problems.
SNAP caseload drops are good news if they reflect improving economic circumstances among low-income households. But an austere provision in current law affecting some of the nation’s poorest individuals has contributed to lower SNAP caseloads and costs. At least 500,000 people lost SNAP over the course of 2016 with the return in many areas of a three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults aged 18 to 49 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children. These cuts have increased hardship for affected people and communities.
A key question is whether states will maintain their progress in reaching eligible households. SNAP participation rates have fluctuated over the years, from below 50 percent at points in the late 1970s and 1980s to more than 80 percent in the most recent estimates. Various factors affect participation, including state administrative practices, the perceived stigma for eligible households that comes with getting SNAP, and outreach and application assistance by community organizations. SNAP participation rates have remained stable in recent years, but in addition to such factors as the economy and eligibility rules, the program’s success in reaching eligible households is also a key factor in SNAP caseload trends.