USDA Report Shows History of Major Nutrition Assistance Programs Providing Americans with Critical Safety Net in Economically Challenging Times
WASHINGTON, September 21, 2012—The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service today released a new research report which investigates the relationship between economic conditions and participation in USDA's five largest nutrition assistance programs. Most notably, the increase in SNAP participation during 2008-10 was consistent with the increase during the previous three economic downturns (1980-81, 1990-92, 2001-03), after adjusting for the increase in the unemployment rate.
"Recessions clearly impact enrollment in SNAP and other USDA nutrition programs, and this report provides further evidence that they are working as designed, providing a vital safety net for low income households to help as people work their way to greater self-sufficiency," said Kevin Concannon, USDA's Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which administers the federal nutrition programs. "In addition, the report indicates program enrollment has been relatively consistent for the past five decades across periods of higher unemployment."
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the nation's first line of defense against hunger and helps put food on the table for millions of low income families and individuals every month. In fact, 82 percent of SNAP households are contain elderly or disabled person, one or more children, or are the working poor. Previous research has shown that SNAP is one of the nation's primary countercyclical assistance programs, expanding during economic downturns and contracting during periods of growth.
As noted by both public sector and private sector economists, the countercyclical nature of SNAP contributes to its effect in reducing poverty. A previous ERS study found that SNAP protected families, and particularly children, from large increases in poverty during the 2007-09 recession. In 2009, the official U.S. poverty rate was 14.3 percent. Adding SNAP program benefits to income calculations, however, would have lowered the poverty rate to 13.2 percent. This translates into lifting roughly 3.4 million people out of poverty that year. SNAP benefits also ensured that the depth and severity of poverty, and particularly child poverty, increased only slightly from 2008 to 2009 despite the recession.
The report released today also shows that, to varying degrees, economic conditions affect participation in the other four major USDA nutrition assistance programs. In other words, all of the major food and nutrition assistance programs respond to increased demand for their services by needy families during economic downturns.
More specifically, the report shows that:
- After adjusting for the increase in the unemployment rate, the increase in SNAP participation during 2008-10 was consistent with the increase during the previous three economic downturns (1980-81, 1990-92, 2001-03), at 2 to 3 million additional participants per 1-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate.
- Since WIC became fully funded in the late 1990s, data suggest that participation in the program has been sensitive to economic conditions, increasing as unemployment increased and vice versa, though the total number of U.S. births also influences participation.
- Total participation in the Child Nutrition Programs (NSLP, SBP, and CACFP) is not affected by economic conditions, but the share of participants receiving free and reduced-price meals is responsive to economic conditions, rising with the unemployment rate during economic declines. The response to economic conditions is greatest for the NSLP, due primarily to the large share of participants already receiving free and reduced price meals (80-90 percent) in the SBP and CACFP.
Visit www.fns.usda.gov for information about USDA's nutrition assistance programs. Visit www.ers.usda.gov for information about economic and policy issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and rural development.
The ERS report can be found at
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