Food stamps – short-term aid and and long-term support

For many people, food stamps, the premiere U.S. anti-hunger program, provides assistance during a fairly brief stretch of hard times, such as unemployment. For millions of others – foremost, the elderly and disabled – the program is a long-term support, says a new Agriculture Department report, Dynamics and Determinants of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation from 2008 to 2012. Food stamps were renamed SNAP in 2008 but the original name remains in use.

During work on the 2014 farm law, critics of the food stamp program focused on the sharp growth in participation, up 65 percent from 2008-12, and the more than doubling in the cost of the program. Conservative Republicans in the House, saying the program was unaffordable at nearly $80 billion in fiscal 2013, unsuccessfully proposed the biggest cuts in a generation for food stamps, chiefly by restricting eligibility. They also called for more effective aid to help jobless recipients find work or to improve the earnings of the working poor who receive food stamps.

Chairman Mike Conaway of the House Agriculture Committee plans “a full-scale review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” saying at the first committee meeting of the year, “I am not pre-judging the outcome of the work our committee will undertake.” He told reporters afterward, as transcribed by Politico, “My intent right now is to simply look at the SNAP program and see what’s working and what’s not working. Why are 53 percent of the recipients on the program after five years?”

A nutrition program expert said 17 percent of food stamp households include elderly people and 20 percent of recipient households have a disabled member. The USDA report says the groups who receive food stamps for the longest periods of time are the elderly, disabled adults and single-parent families.

“Why did he (Conaway) focus on this fact?” asked the nutrition program expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In its summary of the December 2014 report, USDA said that from 2008-12 half of all new participants in food stamps received benefits for 12 months, compared to 10 months in the mid-2000s, a period before the 2008-09 recession.

“However, most participants on SNAP in any given month have participated for much longer periods of time,” said the summary. “About half of individuals receiving benefits in December 2008 had participated in SNAP for eight years or less, with 30 percent participating for three years or less. In contrast, during the mid-2000s, half of the individuals had participated in SNAP for seven years or less.”

The number of people served by food stamps during a year is higher than the number reported in an average month because people enter and leave the program throughout the year. USDA says the turnover rate from 2009-12 ranged from 1.3 to 1.4, “meaning that total annual participation was one-third higher than in an average month.”

“Elderly individuals living alone, on average, stayed on SNAP more than 51 months, longer than any other age group,” said the report.

At latest count, 46.6 million people were enrolled in food stamps with the average monthly benefit of $128 per person. Enrollment peaked in fiscal 2013 at 47.6 million people and a cost of $79.9 billion. Participation averaged 46.5 million people in fiscal 2014 with a total cost of $73.6 billion. Enrollment is highest during times of economic stress.

“SNAP is a vital supplement to the monthly food budget of more than 46 million low-income Americans,” said a USDA spokeswoman, adding, “91 percent of SNAP participants live in a household with a child, senior citizen, a disabled individual or a person with earnings.”