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Why Food Stamp Usage Is So High in Oregon

Nearly 100 percent of eligible Oregonians take advantage of food stamps, far more than any other state. That might be a good thing.

Years after the Great Recession officially ended, food stamp usage in Oregon has nearly doubled. Recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Oregon recorded the highest percentage of households receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2013.

Indeed, a March brief from the Census Bureau indicates that nearly every state had a higher percentage of households on SNAP in 2013 than the year before the recession hit. In 35 of those states, including Oregon, participation remains more than one and a half times what it was in 2006. More than 47 million people received SNAP benefits in 2013 -- a historic high for the program -- translating to a federal cost of nearly $80 billion. Those numbers went down slightly in 2014, but the sustained growth in SNAP since the recession has prompted a review of the program by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

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Oregon has had a higher proportion of households on SNAP than the U.S. as a whole since 2000. So even though reliance on SNAP grew almost everywhere after 2006, it grew faster in Oregon. Why?

Initially Oregon's SNAP usage tracked with the unemployment rate, with both rising from 2007 through 2009. Unlike unemployment, however, the SNAP participation rate continued to increase through 2012. The latest Census figures show a dip in Oregon households receiving SNAP benefits, from 20.1 percent to 19.8 percent, but the change is so small, the Census can't say with confidence that usage even went down.

To some extent, the numbers reflect a state economy that hasn't bounced back. Oregon's unemployment and poverty rates are both above the national average. But the high usage is also a function of state officials making an effort in the past 15 years to increase access to SNAP. "If you were both a state with a high rate of poverty and you were reaching a high share of eligible people, then you'd have a high participation rate," said Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

In fact, four of the five states with the highest percentages of households on SNAP are also in the top 10 for states that sign up people who are eligible for SNAP (Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Oregon and Tennessee). The one exception is Mississippi, which has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment of any state in the country and below-average SNAP participation among eligible people.

Oregon once had a reputation for making it hard for people to receive SNAP benefits, according to Dean. In the late 1990s, the legislature began passing laws that made more people eligible for SNAP and simplified the application process. As a result, the participation rate among eligible people grew from 66 percent in 1997 to nearly 100 percent today.

Since the recession, Oregon has also qualified for a waiver that allows able-bodied adults aged 18-50 who do not have dependent children to receive SNAP even if they do not meet the program's work requirements. About one million people are expected to lose their SNAP benefits in the next two years when the waiver expires in at least 17 states. Some states have already seen their caseloads decrease after their waivers ended. Oregon's SNAP Director Belit Burke expects Oregon will be able to keep the waiver for at least one more year, which will likely contribute to a higher participation rate than in other states.

Beyond the policy explanations for Oregon's high numbers, Burke said she's seeing more heads of households who are working, but can't find full-time jobs. About 43 percent of Oregon's SNAP caseload is employed, far above the national average of 31 percent.

This is a national trend, too. SNAP households that also have some earnings grew by more than a third since welfare reform in the mid 1990s, according to James Ziliak, a poverty researcher at the University of Kentucky. Ziliak told a U.S. House subcommittee on nutrition in late February that "SNAP has evolved into a work supplement for ... near-poor households."

That may explain why so many households have remained on SNAP even as unemployment has gone down. After adjusting for inflation, wages have stagnated for more than a decade, leading workers to seek more government aid to get by. "The only way we're going to lower our caseload," Burke said, "is to help folks get better paying jobs."

State SNAP Data

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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