Even More Reasons to Celebrate SNAP

Apr 13, 2012

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Elizabeth Kenefick

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a vital piece of the social safety net helping millions of struggling families across the country put food on the table; a new report by the US Department of Agriculture released on Monday reminds us why. Alleviating Poverty in the United States: The Critical Role of SNAP Benefits analyzes data from the last decade that demonstrates that SNAP significantly improves the well being of recipients.

The Economic Research Service report confirms that SNAP has lifted millions out of poverty, achieving an average annual decline in the nation's poverty rate of 4.4 percent between 2000 and 2009. Notably, the data goes a step further by building on previous research to analyze SNAP's impact on two other indicators that measure how much SNAP helps extremely poor individuals and families, even if they remain below the poverty line. The report examines the effect of SNAP on the depth of poverty by measuring how much of the absolute gap between household income and the poverty threshold is filled by SNAP benefits. It also looks at a measure, the severity of poverty, which assesses how well the lowest income poor households are helped compared to households just below the poverty line. The report finds that SNAP reduced the depth of poverty by an average of 10.3 and the severity by 13.2 percent between 2000 and 2009, even more than its impact on moving families out of poverty.

These findings also held true when broken out for children and nonmetropolitan and metropolitan poverty. For example, between 2000 and 2009, the depth of child poverty was reduced by an average of 15.5 percent and its severity by an average of 21.3 percent, compared to an average 5.6 percent decline in poverty itself.  While the data analyzed in the report only cover through 2009, we know that SNAP has become an even more important part of the safety net during the deep recession.

Analyzing the depth and severity of poverty is a better way to capture the full effect of SNAP, because the program provides a higher amount of benefits to families with the least income.  While SNAP benefits alone will not lift such families out of poverty, they make the difference between total destitution and hunger and a minimally adequate diet.  In 2009 SNAP benefits provided a maximum of $526 per month for a family of three or about $6 per person per day in that household. This maximum amount is what families with the lowest incomes may receive, while those who are poor but closer to the poverty line could receive $20 or less per month.

Headlines typically focus on a program's success in moving families above the poverty line. While the 3.4 million people that were lifted out of poverty by SNAP in 2009 is reason enough to celebrate the program, the report reminds us to recognize the millions in deep poverty for whom SNAP is a vital lifeline. With increasing numbers of families struggling significantly below that line it's critical that we connect the dots and draw a line to the impacts on these families.

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