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The Recovery Act Strengthened Food Security for Low-Income Families

Young mother with baby selects items in produce aisle of grocery store.

Young mother with baby selects items in produce aisle of grocery store.

Much of my work as a sociologist at the Economic Research Service (ERS) involves research on the food security of U.S. households – their ability to consistently obtain adequate food. My colleagues and I were naturally concerned about how the economic downturn that began in late 2007 would affect the food security of economically vulnerable households. It was no surprise that from 2007 to the end of 2008, households’ food insecurity increased in tandem with rising unemployment.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, a response to the downturn, increased benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—formerly the Food Stamp Program). Besides providing support to those most impacted by the recession,the substantial boost in SNAP benefits created an unusual opportunity for researchers to examine how changes in SNAP benefit levels would affect the food security of recipient households. The increase in benefits, implemented in April 2009, averaged  about 19 percent—large enough that we expected the impacts to be evident in USDA’s annual food security survey.

When we began our research, though, we were uncertain what we would find. Did the ARRA-SNAP enhancements really help? Would improvements in food security be large enough to detect? Our annual report on household food security had already shown that food security among all households stabilized from December 2008 to December 2009 even while unemployment continued rising. But many other factors also changed during that period. Our new study would attempt to disentangle the ARRA-generated effects from effects of changes in the economy, food prices, and other factors during this period.

What did we find? Among low-income households, food spending increased and food security improved substantially from 2008 to 2009. After adjusting for other factors, we concluded that the increase in SNAP benefits likely played a major part in these improvements. Food expenditures by the typical low-income household increased by 5.4 percent, with an estimated 2.2 percent attributed to ARRA-SNAP. About a half million fewer low-income households were food-insecure in 2009 than would likely have been the case without the ARRA SNAP enhancements.

Beyond assessing effects of ARRA, and perhaps more importantly, our study provides evidence of SNAP’s effectiveness in combating food insecurity and credible estimates of the likely effects that changes in SNAP benefits would have on the food security of U.S. households.

The full report, Food Security Improved Following the 2009 ARRA Increase in SNAP Benefits, can be found on our website.

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