Those SNAP Benefits are Making a Difference

Today's farm bill is mainly spent on programs to feed the hungry and it appears it is relieving poverty.

Published on: Apr 12, 2012

The scourge of poverty burns bright in some communities but it turns out that a long standing program, once called food stamps, and now named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is making a difference in poverty. Turns out these benefits are not counted as income when the Census Bureau calculates official poverty rates, and not accounting for these benefits understates the resources of U.S. families who receive them and masks a greater hardship hardship of those who do not.

Working with colleagues at the World Bank and the University of Illinois, Laura Tiehen, food assistance branch, USDA Economic Research Service, included the value of SNAP benefits as income to get a more accurate view of SNAP's anti-poverty effects. She and her colleagues found that with SNAP benefits included as income, the poverty rate, or prevalence of poverty, was reduced by an average of 4.4 percent a year from 2000 to 2009. Just looking at 2009, we found that including SNAP benefits as income would have lowered the official U.S. poverty rate from 14.3% to 13.2%.

HEALTHY MEAL: Family of four has dinner together. New USDA report examines the anti-poverty effects of SNAP. Photo: Thinkstock.
HEALTHY MEAL: Family of four has dinner together. New USDA report examines the anti-poverty effects of SNAP. Photo: Thinkstock.

Says Tiehen: " My colleagues and I wanted to look at how SNAP affects not just the number of people in poverty, but also the intensity of poverty they experience. Sometimes assistance doesn't raise a person or family out of poverty, but they are made better off by receiving the assistance. When this happens, the assistance is doing more good than what shows up in official poverty statistics."

The researchers used two measures that capture the depth and the severity of poverty to look at how SNAP raises poor people's incomes, even if the program doesn't lift them out of poverty. The depth and severity of poverty measures are both functions of how far families' incomes are below the official poverty level, but the severity measure is more sensitive to income changes among the poorest of the poor.

These measures show that during 2000-09, SNAP benefits reduced the depth of poverty by an average of 10.3%, and the severity by an average of 13.2%. The progressive nature of SNAP - where families with lower incomes receive larger benefits than similarly-sized families with higher incomes - explains its greater impact on depth and severity than on the simple poverty rate.

SNAP was even more effective in lessening poverty among children - a group that experiences significantly higher rates of poverty than the overall population. The official poverty rate for children in 2009 was 20.7%. Including SNAP benefits in family income lowers the prevalence of child poverty that year to 18.7 percent. SNAP benefits reduced the depth of child poverty by an annual average of 15.5% during 2000-09 and the severity by 21.3%.