A fundamental difference between unemployment compensation and the food stamp program is their treatment of household income. The result is that food stamp participation among married people is relatively rare.
Traditionally, the food stamp program (now called SNAP) was for the poor: participants had to demonstrate that their incomes and assets were both low, and the program was financed out of general revenue. Unemployment compensation was an insurance program, financed from contributions by participating workers and awarded regardless of one’s assets or the earnings of other household members.
Today, the programs have converged in many ways. Much unemployment compensation (namely, the extended and emergency payments made to people whose unemployment has lasted more than 26 weeks) is financed by the federal government. Most states admit participants into SNAP using “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which (with the exception of three states) means that assets are not checked. For a few years unemployment benefits were available even for those who had been collecting for almost two years; food stamp participation can continue indefinitely.
But an important difference between SNAP and unemployment compensation has remained throughout the recession: the SNAP program checks the income of all household members and bases eligibility on the entire household’s income, not just the situation of the household head.
Naturally, children do not earn much income, so the practical result of the household income rule is that participation in SNAP among the unemployed depends very much on marital status. An unmarried, unemployed household head may have children in the family, but by definition has no spouse, and thereby is unlikely to have much additional family income.
In contrast, an unemployed person with a spouse earning, say, $30,000 a year, has little chance of participating in SNAP because the spouse’s income alone would most likely disqualify the entire household.
The chart below shows program participation rates among unmarried household heads. Using Census Bureau data, I identified household heads and spouses who experienced some unemployment during calendar year 2010 and classified them by their wages and salaries for the year. SNAP participation depends on income relative to household size – larger households need more food and therefore can participate in the program at somewhat higher incomes – so I expressed each person’s wages and salaries relative to the federal poverty guideline for households their size. For example, a value of 1 on the chart’s horizontal axis represents people whose wages and salaries were equal to the federal poverty guideline for their household, which was $22,050 for a family of four.
The red line in the chart is SNAP participation rates for unmarried people relative to married people. The blue line is unemployment insurance receipt for unmarried people relative to married people. For example, for household heads and spouses experiencing unemployment and earning no wage or salary income in 2010, the rate of receiving unemployment insurance was about the same for married and unmarried people: a participation rates ratio of about 0.9. But the SNAP participation rate was twice as great among the unmarried.
For the other earnings categories, unmarried SNAP participation rates range from 1.5 to 2.5 times what they are for married people.
The bottom line is that SNAP is largely a program with unmarried participants. SNAP may be an effective way of feeding people, but its low participation among married people may make it politically less popular than unemployment compensation.