SNAP, Raising People out of Poverty, Effective at Combating Food Insecurity

One in eight U.S. households (15.8 million) is food insecure at some point during the year. Over 6 million (5 percent) have “very low food security,” which is defined as one or more household members skipping meals or consuming less due to lack of resources.

Recently, I spoke with Myra from Witnesses to Hunger, a research and advocacy project that shares the voices of people experiencing hunger and hardship, about her experience as a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipient.

Myra and her husband are a hardworking couple with two children in Philadelphia. Previously, Myra was employed full time as a CNA; however, like many women, she’s had to take time off throughout her career due to the birth of her children and lack of paid family leave. Her son, born over two months premature, has health complications. Despite these challenges, she’s worked as consistently as possible—even taking double shifts. Unfortunately, Myra lost her most recent job in 2016 when the facility she worked at closed. Myra’s husband is a veteran and former utility worker who became injured on the job in 2012. He’s unable to work now due to disability. Myra began receiving SNAP shortly after the birth of her son in 2006. With all her family’s been through, she says the program’s been hugely helpful—ensuring they can eat on a regular basis.  

Myra’s story reflects much of the research around food insecurity, which affects nearly one in five households with children and is associated with numerous negative outcomes. Children experience iron deficiency, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, and other long-term health consequences. Households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or men, women and men living alone, and Black-and Hispanic-headed households are particularly at risk of being food insecure.

SNAP is highly effective at addressing food insecurity and alleviating extreme poverty. In 2015, SNAP raised 4.6 million people out of poverty. Moreover, it’s reduced the fraction of households that were food insecure and very-low food secure by 17 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

One of the key features of SNAP is that it reaches our most vulnerable populations; the majority of SNAP recipients are children, seniors, or people with disabilities. The program is also very flexible, adjusting to market changes and providing assistance to more people during economic recessions or natural disasters (through disaster SNAP, or D-SNAP).

SNAP benefits are very modest, worth just $1.39 per meal on average. Research suggests that slightly higher benefit levels would further reduce food insecurity and create additional health, educational, and economic benefits. Although Myra’s benefits recently increased, her family received just $33 a month from SNAP when she was working. She’s grateful for the benefits but acknowledged that receiving more aid would enable her to buy more fruits and vegetables for her children. This would make a big difference for her son, who needs more fiber in his diet to mitigate his health problems.

With rates of food insecurity remaining high in the U.S., it’s essential to preserve SNAP as a key element of the safety net, so it can continue to support low-income people like Myra and her family.