New Evidence for Old Food Stamp Problem

December 16, 2015

A new report from the White House delivers a mixed message on the benefits of SNAP (the food stamp program).

On the one hand, as Census data and a plethora of research show, SNAP reduces poverty, food insecurity and adverse consequences of both, e.g., poor physical and mental health, problems in school, eventual dropouts.

On the other hand, many households that receive SNAP benefits year round are still food insecure — more than half, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report. And nearly half of these include at least one member who actually had to skimp on meals or skip them altogether.

Nothing fundamentally new here. What is new — at least to me — are two types of studies reinforcing other evidence that SNAP benefits are too low.

Effects on Temporary SNAP Boost

As I’ve written before, the Recovery Act included an increase in the maximum SNAP benefit a household could receive. USDA researchers looked at the impacts on food insecurity during the first year of the boost.

They found that the food insecurity rate for households eligible for SNAP dropped about 8%, while the rate rose for households with incomes somewhat above the standard maximum for eligibility.

At the same time, the very low food security rate, i.e., the percent of households where hunger was more than a risk, dropped by about 17%.

The boost thus provided roughly 530,000 more households with the resources needed to “have consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

But Congress twice foreshortened the duration of the boost to help offset the costs of newer spending measures. But the effects while it lasted tend to indicate that benefits are too low — and in fact, still were while they were higher. We didn’t, after all, see anything close to a zero percent food insecurity rate for SNAP recipients then.

End-of-the-Month Effects

Several studies looked at what happens during the course of a month — from the time households receive their SNAP benefits to the time they’re due for more.

They tend to use a disproportionate share of their benefits early on, but not to stock up on non-perishables they can use to prepare meals all month long, the research indicates. Nor do they generally buy more pricey foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. So the dietary quality of what they eat doesn’t change.

They apparently just eat less over the course of a month. Their calorie consumption declines as much as 25%, according to one researcher’s estimate. But the end-of-the-month drop was less when they still had the higher Recovery Act benefits.

Though some of us may view reduced calorie intake as a good thing, it can cause serious health problems. Diabetics, for example, can suffer from dangerously low blood sugar levels when they don’t eat regularly.

So one research team looked at hospital admissions for hypoglycemia (the technical terms for a low blood sugar level) over the course of the monthly SNAP benefits cycle. They found 28% more admissions during the last week than the first.

This understates the effects of having to cut back on food, the White House report tells us. The hospital admissions don’t include treatments in emergency rooms. Nor, of course, untreated cases that can lead to more serious health problems — or even death.

Two other studies looked at children’s performance in school over the monthly benefits cycle. One found higher average math and reading test scores among children whose families had received their SNAP benefits several weeks before the tests, when the kids would have been learning what they were tested on — and probably getting prepped.

The other study focused on behavioral problems, as measured by disciplinary actions in a large public school district. It found a higher rate of disciplinary actions against children from SNAP households than others.

There could be various reasons for this, including what seems a greater readiness to suspend or expel black, Hispanic and certain other minority students who are more likely than others to have poor or near-poor parents.

But the disciplinary actions rate gap grew toward the end of the benefits month. Factoring out differences in student characteristics suggests that the late-month exhaustion of SNAP benefits causes an 11% increase in disciplinary actions against students in families that receive them.

Inferentially then, if families had larger SNAP benefits, their school-age children would do better academically and be less likely to act up in ways that deny them the chance because they’re in the principal’s office, confined to a room where they may not get taught anything or barred from the school altogether.

Root of the Problem

The White House report briefly summarizes new research indicating that the Thrifty Food Plan — the basis for determining SNAP benefits — is overly thrifty, even when households supplement them with some of their own income, as they’re expected to.

We’ve had evidence of this for some time, as followers of this blog know. We have studies of the actual costs of a TFP market basket.  We have a report from experts at the Institute of Medicine, citing, among other things, unrealistic assumptions built into the TFP.

None of this seems to make any difference. The latest Farm Bill cut SNAP benefits for 850,000 or so households — and would have been much worse if the House Republicans’ version had prevailed. So much for evidence.

The White House report nevertheless amply bolsters the case for an altogether revamped TFP — or as the Food Research and Action Center has long advocated, a switch to USDA’s cheapest food plan for everybody who doesn’t have to depend on SNAP to stave off hunger.