One in Five SNAP Recipients Has No Other Income

By Randi Hall

While most people receiving food supports under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—formerly known as food stamps) are in households with working members, or where all adult members are not expected to work due to age or disability, the share of SNAP recipients with no other reported income has grown in recent years. Overall, the proportion of SNAP participants living in households with zero gross income doubled from 9.7 percent in fiscal year 1993 to 20.5 percent in fiscal year 2012.

Policymakers have wondered about the characteristics of zero-income SNAP households, the economic and/or policy dynamics affecting this population, and how they are getting by.  In order to answer these questions, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) commissioned an extensive study of SNAP households reporting zero gross income. By using the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) panel data from 1993 to 2008, the researchers were able to look at the characteristics, circumstances and participation of zero-income SNAP households in comparison to positive-income SNAP households as well as zero-and-positive income households that did not receive SNAP.  In addition, they conducted in-depth interviews with 50 respondents who reported no earnings on their SNAP applications to understand how these recipient households survived without income.

The proportion of able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) among the zero-income SNAP population dropped from 35 percent in 1996 to 18 percent in 2001, largely due to the enactment of time limits on unemployed ABAWDs under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. However, the share of ADAWDs rebounded in 2008 to 31 percent, as the time limits were suspended in most states due to high unemployment rates during the Great Recession.  In 2008, children made up 44 percent of the zero-income SNAP population, up from 31 percent in 1993. This may be due to the decline in receipt of cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) following PRWORA.  Individuals in families with children were more likely than households without children to experience a period of zero earned income while participating in SNAP. Among the in-depth interview sample of 50, 17 respondents had children younger than 18, although only 9 respondents had full custody of their children. While a few of the respondents with children were receiving aid under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) at the time of their interview, only two single parents were enrolled in TANF. Some participants indicated that they did not need cash assistance due to extended support by family or friends, while others were unaware of the possibility of receiving help from TANF.  

Most zero-income SNAP households were only in this status for a short period of time; more than 75 percent of zero-income SNAP adults were able to obtain income of some sort within four months.  Around 30 percent of zero-income SNAP adults listed health or disability issues as the main reason for their recent unemployment. For a majority of SNAP adults, earnings were the most common source of income lost before (62 percent) and gained after (65 percent) a period of zero income. In 2008, around 30 percent of zero-income SNAP adults had completed some post-secondary education, an increase from just 12 percent in 1993. However, the zero-income SNAP population is less educated compared to SNAP recipients with positive incomes.

The in-depth interviews uncovered numerous barriers to employment that zero-income SNAP participants face such as lack of education or credentials, physical and mental health, previous incarceration, and dependent care of other family members. Several respondents who may have qualified for in-kind cash assistance through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Unemployment Insurance did not follow through with applications, describing administrative obstacles and misinformation about eligibility requirements. Respondents also outlined strategies they used to manage their situations, including:

  • Securing housing by living with family and friends, often in exchange for food or housework
  • “Odd jobs” or informal employment, such as housecleaning, babysitting or landscaping  to earn unreported income
  •  Extending SNAP benefits through the month by skipping meals or reducing meal size

These findings have implications for policy. As the unemployment rate falls, the statewide waivers of the time limits on SNAP receipt for ABAWDs will start to expire.  States should plan to provide qualified Employment and Training opportunities to ensure that unemployed individuals who are willing to participate do not lose access to SNAP benefits.  States applying for the newly established SNAP Employment and Training pilots should consider the services needed to help zero-income SNAP households obtain employment, such as vocational training, subsidized employment, and support services including assistance in applying for other benefits for which the individual may qualify. As SNAP continues to prove successful in alleviating poverty, particularly among working families, the program’s new Employment and Training pilots offer great promise as an important tool for helping recipients who struggle to obtain and keep a job.