Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Sharp Increase in Food Stamp Spending

Copyright, The New York Times Company

The Department of Agriculture’s food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides money to low-income households for the purpose of buying food, often in conjunction with cash assistance programs. Adjusting for inflation, the program spent more than twice as much in 2010 as it did in 2007, before the recession began.

The Department of Agriculture found that the food-stamp spending increase “is likely attributable to the deterioration of the economy, expansions in SNAP eligibility, and continued outreach efforts.” Of particular relevance for the SNAP program is the fact that the poverty rate increased 18 percent, to 153 per thousand in 2010 from 130 per thousand Americans in 2007.

At least two eligibility expansions have occurred since the recession began: work requirements were lifted from April 1, 2009, through Sept. 30, 2010, and monthly income limits were 10 percent higher in the 2010 fiscal year than they were in the 2007 fiscal year, an increase about twice the rate of inflation over that period.

In addition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased maximum benefits by 13.6 percent, and the minimum benefit increased in October 2008. Increasingly, potential program participants have been given the opportunity to apply for benefits on the Internet.

The declining economy alone, under the previous rules, would have raised the spending on food stamps by 18 percent. But the revised provisions, enacted largely in response to the recession, are responsible for a greater share of the increase. The following table breaks down the program’s spending growth into three components: deterioration of the economy, relaxed eligibility rules and increased maximum benefits.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The top row of the table is actual program spending for 2007 and 2010, adjusting for inflation and population. The second row of the table estimates the program’s hypothetical spending growth with 2007 eligibility rules, by assuming that real spending per capita increased since 2007 only in proportion to increases in the poverty rate, plus the 13.6 percent benefit increase of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The last row assumes that real spending per capita increased only with the poverty rate. Under either scenario, the hypothetical spending increases are significant but well less than half of the actual spending increases.

Over all, the table suggests that most growth in spending on SNAP is due to changes in eligibility rules and increases in payments per eligible person. The program’s spending would certainly have grown if benefit rules had remained as they were in 2007, but much less than it actually did. And those more generous provisions are now likely to be here to stay, even if the conditions that prompted them abate.


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