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Under $2 a Day in America, Part 2

Yesterday’s post in this series highlighted a recent study from the National Poverty Center showing that the number of extremely poor families — those living on less than $2 per person a day — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, to 1.46 million.  The number of extremely poor children also doubled, to 2.8 million.

While the study’s findings are extremely troubling, they also show that SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program) is a powerful antidote to extreme poverty.

Counting SNAP benefits as income reduces the number of households in extreme poverty in 2011 from 1.46 million to nearly 800,000, the study found (see graph).  And it reduces the number of children in extreme poverty in 2011 by half — from 2.8 million to 1.4 million.


SNAP’s beneficial effects were especially notable after policymakers expanded the program in the 2009 Recovery Act.  As the graph shows, the number of extremely poor households shot up between late 2008 and early 2011, but if you count SNAP benefits, it remained virtually unchanged.

Other studies have also documented SNAP’s powerful poverty-fighting impact.  According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts SNAP as income, SNAP kept more than 5 million people out of poverty in 2010.  SNAP also lessens the severity of poverty for millions of others; if SNAP is counted as income, it lifted 2.5 million children above 75 percent of the poverty line in 2005, more than any other program.

One reason that SNAP is so effective in fighting poverty is that it is focused overwhelmingly on the poor.  Roughly 93 percent of SNAP benefits go to households below the poverty line, and 55 percent go to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,300 for a family of three).  One in five SNAP households lives on cash income of less than $2 per person a day.

Another reason for SNAP’s effectiveness is that, unlike cash assistance, it is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes.  SNAP eligibility rules and benefit levels are, for the most part, uniform across the nation.  And, SNAP is structured as an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies under program rules can receive benefits.

SNAP alone, of course, cannot cure extreme poverty or the hardships to which it contributes.   Even with the help that SNAP provides, the Agriculture Department estimates that some 2.2 million households with children suffered from hunger at some point in 2010.  But SNAP is doing much to ameliorate these terrible problems.

Stacy Dean

Vice President for Food Assistance Policy