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June 5, 2009
SNAP/Food Stamp Participation Continues to Set Record Levels; More than 33.1 Million Participate in March 2009

Overall Trends

The number of people participating in SNAP/Food Stamps in March 2009 was more than 16 million more persons than in July 2000, when program participation nationally reached its lowest point in the last decade (16.8 million individuals).

Caseloads dropped through 1998 and 1999 as the economy improved and many states failed to get food stamps to low-income families who had left cash welfare for low-paid work. Caseloads then stabilized and began rising in 2000. Increases in participation since then likely have been driven by improved access to the program in states, including most recently for legal immigrants, by the weakened economy for low-income families, and (in September, October, and November 2005) by hurricanes.

Research suggests that one in three eligible people are not receiving food stamp benefits. See FRAC's "Gaps in Coverage" page. page. Fortunately, tools are available to bring federal food stamp dollars into families and communities, where each dollar is estimated to produce nearly two dollars in economic activity. See FRAC's "Countercyclical Section" attachment.

Trends: 1998-2001

From December 1997 to December 2000, the food stamp caseload fell by 3.5 million persons. Some reduction in poverty and improvement in the overall unemployment rate contributed to these Food Stamp Program caseload declines, but other factors, including negative program changes by Congress, interactions with the cash public assistance system that make food stamp access harder for eligible families, and lack of information about the program among potentially eligible people, explained much of the drop.

Because of the 1996 welfare law, by August 22, 1997 most legal immigrants lost eligibility for federal food stamp benefits. Some immigrants were made newly eligible November 1, 1998, but a majority remained barred from the program. (Important additional improvements are occurring in 2003.) The period after March 1997 was also marked by implementation of cuts in Food Stamp Program eligibility for many childless, jobless adults. Implementation of the new, separate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program established by the 1996 welfare law also had major, unintended, adverse effects on the Food Stamp Program, as families lost food stamps (for which many were still eligible) at the same time that they lost TANF benefits. According to a July 2001 USDA report to Congress, over half (56 percent) of caseload declines between 1994 and 1999 "occurred because fewer eligible individuals participated in the program," rather than because of the economy or changes in eligibility rules. Further, USDA finds, "nearly a quarter of all leavers (from food stamps) experienced hunger in the first year after leaving the Food Stamp Program."

Trends: 2001-2008

Unemployment and underemployment; improved processes in some states at application; better rules in many states, such as no longer treating vehicles as a resource barring eligibility; and other increased efforts by states and non-profit groups to connect eligible persons with benefits have contributed to the increase in Food Stamp Program participation in the last five years.

Pursuant to the 2002 Farm Bill, many legal immigrants became newly eligible for benefits in 2003 (as of April 2003, those residing in the US at least five years; as of October 2003, those under 18 regardless of date of entry).

Caseload trends in late 2005 were affected by the temporary disaster Food Stamp Program relief in the wake of several hurricanes, relief that by December was on the wane.

A positive feature of the SNAP/Food Stamp Program is its ability to meet increased need, whether due to economic changes or disasters. For information about the Disaster Food Stamp Program, download FRAC's Guide to the Disaster Food Stamp Program; click here for a press release on the guide.

Three states with large numbers of those affected by the hurricanes– Florida, Louisiana, and Texas--accounted for nearly 3.4 million of the 3.8 million person increase between August and November 2005. Also ranking in the ten states with the largest percentage increases between August and November 2005 were three other states disproportionately impacted by hurricanes— Mississippi (hit by Katrina), Georgia and Arkansas (both reportedly serving large numbers of hurricane evacuees).

Not reflected in the caseload figures was additional nutrition assistance provided to many regular food stamp households affected by the hurricanes. Many households already enrolled in the program received replacement allotments to help cope with their food losses. Additional nutrition assistance also was provided to hurricane victims through the school meals programs, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and WIC Program.

The significant food stamp service to hurricane survivors was due to a combination of factors: the entitlement structure of the program which allowed it to respond quickly to deep and urgent need; strong leadership from political appointees and career officials at the US Department of Agriculture; key efforts of state governments; efficiency of the Electronic Benefit Transfer delivery system; and outreach and advocacy by non-profit groups.

Changes in SNAP/Food Stamp benefit levels and asset rules that were enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill became effective as of October 1, 2008. These include the first ever increase in the minimum monthly benefit (from $10 to $14), an increase in the standard deduction for households of three or fewer, and taking into account the full amount of dependent care costs households incur. Retirement and education savings accounts will no longer be counted against a household's SNAP eligibility.

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