Food Assistance Programs1

Food Assistance Programs1

Craig Gundersen

Low-income families in the United States face numerous challenges. One central challenge is limitations in the ability to acquire enough food for their families. In 2010, for example, 14.5% of Americans were food insecure (i.e., they were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources) (1). These proportions were substantially higher among certain subgroups of the population, including children and low-income households.

That millions of persons in the United States go without sufficient food is a serious issue and policy concern. Moreover, a well-established set of consequences exists associated with food insecurity. Research has shown that children in households suffering from food insecurity are more likely to have fair or poor general health (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), psychosocial problems (8, 10, 11, 12, 13), frequent stomachaches and headaches (10), increased odds of being hospitalized (3), greater propensities to have seen a psychologist (10), behavior problems (14, 15), lower intakes of important nutrients (16, 17, 18), worse developmental outcomes (19, 20, 21), more chronic illnesses (8), impaired functioning (13), impaired mental proficiency (22), and higher levels of iron deficiency with anemia (23, 24) than are children in food-secure households. Foodinsecure adults have been shown to have lower intakes of a variety of nutrients (25, 26, 27, 28), a broad set of physical health problems (29, 30, 31, 32, 33), mental health challenges (31, 34), and chronic diseases (35, 36), including type 2 diabetes (29, 35, 37). Among senior adults in particular, the negative health consequences of food insecurity include lower intakes of a variety of nutrients (38, 39), lower skinfold thickness (38), greater likelihood of reporting fair or poor health (38, 39, 40), higher levels of depression (39, 40, 41), poorer quality of life (41), and lower levels of physical performance (41).

Although research on food insecurity and its consequences is relatively recent, the US government has long recognized that millions of Americans face serious nutritional challenges. In response, the United States has established a food assistance safety net composed of several distinct programs. The largest food assistance program in the United States is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Three additional programs directed toward children are the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the National School Lunch Program (NSLP); and the School Breakfast Program (SBP). Smaller, but important, programs include The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).


The SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is by far the largest US food assistance program, serving approximately 46 million individuals in 2011, with an
annual benefit distribution of $75.7 billion. Participants receive benefits for the purchase of food in authorized retail food outlets. Benefits are distributed through an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which is operationally similar to an automated teller machine (ATM) card. The level of benefits received by a household is determined by income level and family size. In 2010, the average monthly benefit was $288/month for a family of four, with the maximum benefit for a family of four being $668. The central goal of SNAP is to be a core component of the safety net against hunger (42).

Eligibility Criteria

Eligibility for SNAP is defined at the household level. More specifically, a household is defined as one containing people who live together and purchase and prepare meals together. To be eligible for SNAP, households have to first meet a monthly gross income test. Under this criterion, a household’s income (before any deductions) has to be less than 130% of the poverty line. As an example, in 2010, a SNAP household with three persons and a monthly income less than $1984 would be gross income eligible. The gross income test does not apply to all households, however; households with at least one elderly member or one disabled member do not have to meet this test.

Households with an elderly or disabled member and most other households have to pass the net income criteria, wherein net income is defined as gross income minus certain deductions. The allowable deductions include (a) a standard deduction for all households; (b) a 20% earned income deduction; (c) a dependent care deduction when care is necessary for work, training, or education; (d) a legally owed child support payments deduction; (e) a medical costs deduction for elderly and disabled people; and (f) an excess shelter cost deduction. To be eligible, this net income must be less than the poverty line. As an example, in 2010, a SNAP household with net income of less than $1526/month would be net income eligible. Households in which all members receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are considered to be automatically eligible for SNAP, and do not have to pass either the gross or the net income tests.

The final test for SNAP eligibility is the asset test. For most households, the total assets of a household must be less than $2000. When determining eligibility with respect to assets, some resources are not counted, such as one’s home and up to $4650 of the fair market value of one car per adult household member. Similarly, one car per teenaged household member may be deducted if the teenager is using it for work, and a vehicle’s value is not counted if it is needed to transport a disabled household member. Exceptions to these rules apply: Households with an elderly or disabled person have an asset limit of $3000; those where everyone received SSI or TANF do not have an asset test. Many states have the ability to waive the asset test.

Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), between the ages of 18 and 50 years, must be employed to receive SNAP. If they are not employed, they can lose their SNAP benefits. In areas with particularly high unemployment rates or limited employment opportunities, this so-called ABAWD requirement is waived.

Research Evaluations

Determinants of Participation

A high proportion of households eligible for SNAP do not participate. This is ascribed to three main factors. First, there may be stigma associated with receiving SNAP. Stigma encompasses a wide variety of sources, from a person’s own distaste for receiving SNAP, to the fear of disapproval from others when redeeming SNAP, to the possible negative reaction of caseworkers (43, 44). Second, transaction costs can diminish the attractiveness of participation. Examples of such costs include travel time to, and time spent in, a SNAP office; the burden of transporting children to the office or paying for child care services; and the direct costs of paying for transportation. A household faces these costs on a repeated basis, because it must recertify its eligibility. Third, the benefit level can be quite small— for some families, as low as $10 per month.

Because the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 calls for policy makers to assess the effects of federal programs, the extent of nonparticipation by eligible households is closely followed. To this end, national SNAP participation, defined as the percentage of eligible people who actually participate in food stamps, has been used to assess performance for nearly 25 years. In 2008, a 2-year performance target of 68% of the eligible population was set.

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Jul 27, 2016 | Posted by in PUBLIC HEALTH AND EPIDEMIOLOGY | Comments Off on Food Assistance Programs1

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