Food Stamp Enrollment Still Climbing in Many States

While the economy recovers, SNAP participation hasn't yet fallen. View charts and updated data for each state.
by | July 30, 2013 AT 12:00 PM

While not one of the more common economic indicators, food stamp participation rates can help gauge the extent to which the economy has (or hasn’t) recovered.

Historically, the measure closely mirrors key components of the economy. As unemployment rises, so too, does food stamp participation, and food stamp use went up markedly during the Great Recession.

The number of Americans relying on federal assistance to put food on the table ballooned to record levels during the recession – more than doubling from just 10 years ago. More than one of every seven Americans now participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to the most recent federal data.

About 47.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits in April – a number that has not budged much over the past year. Participation rates leveled off in many states (see chart below), but most aren’t showing signs of falling. That could soon change if the economy makes strides in rebounding, as declines in SNAP participation typically trail drops in the unemployment rate.

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Severe job losses put a sharp increase on demand for the safety net. The Recovery Act also temporarily boosted maximum benefit amounts and suspended time limitations for benefits among able-bodied adults with no dependents.

States, which administer SNAP differerently, made thier own changes as well. Some worked to increase participation by adopting new procedures aimed at increasing efficeincy, while others modified eligibility rules to encompass more households.

“The lion’s share [of the increase] is economic distress, but the policies states chose are also a part of the reason,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal and food stamp director for the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center.

Vollinger cited New Jersey as one state working to increase its participation rates, with some counties adopting new business practices, such as conducting more client interviews over the phone. The state has seen its count jump from about 600,000 individuals in early 2010 to nearly 900,000 in recent months.

About 4.2 million Californians received SNAP benefits, adding up to about one in ten residents. By comparison, about 22 percent of Mississippi residents participated in April, more than any other state.

Governing obtained historical monthly data for each state from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, shown in the chart below:

The share of the eligible population enrolled in SNAP also varies greatly among states and demographic groups. Vollinger said about three-quarters of all eligible participate, but this rate drops to about one-third for the elderly population.

U.S. households enrolled in SNAP received an average monthly benefit of $278 for fiscal year 2012.

SNAP participation appears to have plateaued, but isn't yet declining.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report that examined SNAP participation during recessions found there isn't much of a lag in participation when unemployment is on the way up. But during three of the four recovery periods studied, SNAP participation continued to increase for one or more years after the unemployment rate started to decline.

So, it shouldn't be a surprise that total SNAP enrollment is stagnant, particularly given how sluggish the recovery has been.

And while it is true that the national unemployment rate declined over the past couple years, other economic indicators are showing little improvement.

For example, the U6 rate, which includes those employed part time and not actively searching for work for economic reasons, remains far above pre-recession levels:

The country’s employment-to-population ratio also hasn’t moved much:

The Congressional Budget Office projects food stamp participation will decline, but not for another year or so. Here’s a chart showing CBO estimates through 2023:

Depending on how the new farm bill plays out, SNAP participation rates could soon drop as Congress weighs several potential policy changes to the program. See another post here later this week summarizing how a few key proposals could affect states.