Getting Food Stamps

The lack of research on participation rates make it hard to find best practices.

There’s been lots of talk about food stamps recently, fueled in no small part by Republican primary candidates using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to burnish their conservative credentials. Actual facts have not been high on the list of what’s been driving the most recent national discussion. But a recently released report of food stamp participation rates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service offers up some facts that, if nothing else, seem to turn some assumptions about public assistance on their ear.

For one, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia and Louisiana aren’t in last place. Actually, according to the USDA report, all four of those states come in ahead of states you’d think would be high performers, like Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and even California, which comes in dead last.

When broken out regionally, the Midwest had the highest participation rates followed by the Mountain Plains region, the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, the Southwest and the West.

The questions, of course, are why does Maine rank number one at 93 percent, while California brings up the rear at 55 percent? And what is different about the Midwest, which had just over 80 percent participation rates, compared to the West, with just over 60 percent? The simple and somewhat unsettling answer to the question of why one state has higher participation rates than another is that nobody is exactly sure.

While there are reports that discuss what influences participation rates, they’re equivocal. Take, for example, Understanding the Determinants of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation, published by the USDA, in which researchers basically conclude that the whole subject needs more study.

“People have been asking that question for a long time,” says Laura Castner, an analyst with the firm Mathematica Policy Research, “and we’ve come up with a couple things that we can point to that raise or lower participation rates.” One clear deterrent is fingerprinting requirements, which were recently eliminated in California. Critics of the practice claim it scares off many would-be applicants in need of assistance. In New York, which is 39th in participation rates, a battle is brewing between Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has vowed to end fingerprinting, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who says he wants to continue the practice.

Castner also notes that there tends to be relatively low participation among the elderly, whose retirement income might reduce the amount of food stamps they’re eligible for and therefore make the benefit less attractive. In other places, it’s just the stigma of collecting food stamps that discourages participation. And in states that have more frequent certification periods, require lots of paperwork or don’t offer very generous benefits, suppressed participation is typical, too.

But a lot of the reasons are amorphous. Some experts believe there’s some element of good government involved in higher participation rates. One noted, “How much effort are you putting into making your program navigable, like Maine, Oregon and Michigan,” which were one, two and three in participation among those eligible. In general, states that make it easy to apply online seem to enjoy higher rates of participation.

Some even posit that the higher rates of participation in the Southeast are due to higher poverty rates, giving the population more familiarity with the process of applying. Either way, researchers emphasize that these are just impressions and guesses.

What is much more certain is the amount of federal money that states and localities are leaving on the table because of their failure to sign up eligible individuals. A study released in January by the Food Research and Action Center took a look at 22 large cities and what they forfeited in SNAP benefits. According to the report, Los Angeles left $353 million in unclaimed benefits, Houston missed out on $142 million and New York City never claimed $124 million. In all, the 22 large cities could have scooped up another $1.1 billion in benefits. Extrapolate that number to all states and localities and what it adds up to is a lot of bread.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.