David Armor and Sonia Sousa on SNAP

by Reihan Salam

In the forthcoming issue of National Affairs, David Armor and Sonia Sousa of George Mason University describe the dramatic expansion of various federal anti-poverty programs. A link will be up on Monday [and as promised, here it is], but I wanted to share some of their findings on the SNAP program to give some indication of the scale of the expansion:

(1) From 2000 to 2010, the SNAP rolls increased from 17 million to just over 40 million. Real spending increased from $22 billion to $68 billion. But the average per-person benefit was relatively constant for most of this period.

(2) That, however, changed in 2009, when the per-person benefit started to increase at a much faster rate, due primarily to the 2009 fiscal stimulus law. ARRA provided for a 13% increase in the first year, yet the actual increase was 27%. This is despite the fact that there was no significant increase in food-price inflation in 2009 or 2010.

(3) The authors observe that the increase in participation in the program in recent years hasn’t come from families below the poverty level. Of the 40.3 million individuals receiving SNAP benefits in 2010, 20.4 million were above the official poverty line. Roughly 8 million were in households earning more than 200% of the poverty level income.

The authors offer a number of explanations for the expansion of SNAP eligibility. One of the main drivers is categorical eligibility:

Categorical eligibility allows states to declare large numbers of families eligible for SNAP without actually going through the SNAP program’s own process for determining eligibility; families receiving in-kind benefi ts from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program, for instance, are deemed automatically eligible for food stamps. Coupled with the fact that Congress allows states to use categorical eligibility for families with incomes up to 200% of the poverty line, this practice allows large numbers of nonpoor persons to qualify for SNAP.

Ramesh Ponnuru wrote about SNAP for Bloomberg View back in January. I assume that many of our interlocutors will see nothing wrong with the expansion of SNAP eligibility, and there is a case to be made that it shouldn’t be our first concern in light of the stagnant economy. One concern, however, is that this expansion will be very hard to reverse even in the event of more robust growth.