Changes in Eligibility Standards Made Food Stamps a Winner in Recession

Ideas and Issues

Dallas   There was some good news for citizen wealth during the recession and it can be found in the increased utilization of the food stamp program, which is now called SNAP standing for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The raw numbers tell the story. On the eve of the recession in 2007, the government was spending $30 billion or so on food stamps but by the end of 2012, five years later, the allocation had more than doubled to $75 billion.   More importantly in the same period beneficiaries have increased by 70% with almost 50 million people now receiving food stamps.

Did we get a heart or did we get smart?  It seems like we got smart.  The severity of the recession finally opened the eyes of both bureaucrats and politicians that the eligibility criteria were so difficult that many families were being forced into dire circumstances before they could qualify for food stamps.  A temporary setback caused by job loss or income decreases could force permanent impoverishment before allowing help from SNAP.   Beginning with the Obama Administration’s expanded benefits program during the bailout early in 2008, many states were encouraged to take a closer and kinder look at the impact of their draconian eligibility standards and for a change they did, particularly by relaxing some of the requirements around savings accounts, property ownership, and family income levels with some states going up to 200% of the poverty level.  The result was that 43 states and US territories opened up their standards so that more people would not be hungry while they weathered the recession.  The USDA which administers the program, partially because of the huge benefits to the American agricultural sector and not just the poor, notes correctly that this is the way SNAP was supposed to work by expanding to extend more benefits as poverty levels increased.

Food stamps are still no princely sum.  The average benefit paid last year was $133 per person or about $4 per day, but that makes a big difference when the question is eating or not eating, eating right or eating wrong, and looking for work or going to bed hungry.

Even as the recession begins to ease, let’s hope that we have learned something from all of  this over the last 5 or 6 years, and we never turn back the food stamp clock and force people to become destitute and starving before they can get assistance.

SNAP Benefits on Audio