Did Fewer DC Residents Get Food Stamps Last Year?

November 28, 2011

A recent Census Bureau brief based on the 2009 and 2010 results of the American Community Survey shows changes in the number and percent of households that participated in SNAP (the food stamp program).

Not surprisingly, the total number of U.S. households participating jumped last year — by 16%, in fact, up to 13.6 million households. That’s nearly one in eight of all households in the country.

The brief shows not only the depth but the breadth of hardship in our country. Also the relative success of one of our major safety net programs since SNAP has been expanding markedly ever since the recession set in.

Participation rates increased significantly in all but five or six states. (There seems to be a discrepancy between the text and the table on this point.) Many of the increases were very large — at least 20% in 21 states and well over 40% in three.

This too perhaps is not surprising since the year’s average unemployment rates rose significantly in 22 states. More tellingly perhaps, the percent of working-age residents who were gainfully employed dropped significantly in 32 states.

And some 3.9 million jobless workers exhausted their long-term unemployment benefits, which may not have been enough to cover their living costs anyway.

What is somewhat surprising is that the reported SNAP participation rate in the District of Columbia dropped — by 10.5% or an estimated 3,376 households.

This has occasioned some comment. Unnamed analysts consulted by the Washington Examiner opined that the drop reflects an out-migration to nearby suburbs where the cost of living isn’t “skyrocketing.”

Over the long haul, this is undoubtedly true. As the one named analyst observes, housing in the District is becoming increasingly expensive — unaffordable, in fact, for households poor enough to qualify for food stamps.

But are we really to believe that about 3,370 low-income households decamped last year?

No reason to come to any such conclusion because, as the Census Bureau brief makes clear, that apparent drop in SNAP participation wasn’t statistically significant.

In other words, the number of District households surveyed each year was so relatively small that the apparent change could be due simply to the fact that fewer households in the 2010 sample received food stamps.

In fact, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute argues that the ACS isn’t the best source for SNAP participation. Better, it says, to rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose preliminary figures show that 9,940 more District households received food stamps in 2010.

Doesn’t mean that all is well. The Food Research and Action Center reports that 18.9% — about 113,825 — District residents couldn’t always afford to buy enough food last year.

Does, however, mean that it pays to read the fine print.


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