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SNAP Benefits Lessen Depth and Severity of Poverty

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

To help those in need make ends meet, the Federal Government offers a variety of assistance programs.  Some provide cash, but more offer in-kind assistance such as subsidized rents or assistance with home energy bills. USDA provides eligible households with in-kind assistance in the form of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits to buy groceries (formerly called the Food Stamp Program). But these benefits, and other in-kind assistance, are not counted as income when the Census Bureau calculates official poverty rates.  Not accounting for these benefits understates the resources of U.S. families who receive them and masks the greater relative hardship of those who do not.

Working with colleagues at the World Bank and the University of Illinois, I included the value of SNAP benefits as income to get a more accurate view of SNAP’s anti-poverty effects.  We found that with SNAP benefits included as income, the poverty rate, or prevalence of poverty, was reduced by an average of 4.4 percent a year from 2000 to 2009.  Just looking at 2009, we found that including SNAP benefits as income would have lowered the official U.S. poverty rate from 14.3 percent to 13.2 percent.

Family of four has dinner together. New USDA report examines the anti-poverty effects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Photo: Thinkstock

Family of four has dinner together. New USDA report examines the anti-poverty effects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Photo: Thinkstock

My colleagues and I wanted to look at how SNAP affects not just the number of people in poverty, but also the intensity of poverty they experience.  Sometimes assistance doesn’t raise a person or family out of poverty, but they are made better off by receiving the assistance. When this happens, the assistance is doing more good than what shows up in official poverty statistics.

We used two measures that capture the depth and the severity of poverty to look at how SNAP raises poor people’s incomes, even if the program doesn’t lift them out of poverty.  The depth and severity of poverty measures are both functions of how far families’ incomes are below the official poverty level, but the severity measure is more sensitive to income changes among the poorest of the poor.

These measures show that during 2000-09, SNAP benefits reduced the depth of poverty by an average of 10.3 percent, and the severity by an average of 13.2 percent. The progressive nature of SNAP—where families with lower incomes receive larger benefits than similarly-sized families with higher incomes—explains its greater impact on depth and severity than on the simple poverty rate. 

SNAP was even more effective in lessening poverty among children—a group that experiences significantly higher rates of poverty than the overall population.  The official poverty rate for children in 2009 was 20.7 percent. Including SNAP benefits in family income lowers the prevalence of child poverty that year to 18.7 percent. SNAP benefits reduced the depth of child poverty by an annual average of 15.5 percent during 2000-09 and the severity by 21.3 percent. Check out more of the findings in our report, Alleviating Poverty in the United States: The Critical Role of SNAP Benefits.

4 Responses to “SNAP Benefits Lessen Depth and Severity of Poverty”

  1. Sharon says:

    It may help with a family with children but someone like me with no children trying to make ends meet while on unemployment and trying to keep up with other bills, can’t get any benefits at all.

  2. Karin Covey says:

    I have used food stamp benefits off and on for many years raising a family of eight. During these years I have observed many families and how they benefit from these programs. For certain I can say the delivery methods have been the best improvement of all. The debit card removes the fraud and the same factor.
    I have noticed a tendency for unhealthy purchases and eating for emotional comfort. More and better nutritional education would benefit all income groups. We could also use phrases like ‘nutritional responsibility’ when delivering approval for these programs. Soda Pop and caffiene and energy drinks should be viewed as unethical purchases. I think these programs are essential for our nation’s children to grow up healthy. I used and appreciated any benefits I ever got from the government.

  3. Karin Covey says:

    shame factor….

  4. Sharon Dumas says:

    I live in Onondaga County, North Syracuse NY. My 15 yr old unforatunately made a baby! Now the Mother of the child and my grandbaby live with me. While the Mom was pregnant they gave her foodstamps. After she had the baby, I tried to add the baby on her “snap” case to get additional benefits for the baby. What did they do?? They took the benefit away from the Mom and wouldn’t add the baby on at all! The Mom is disabled and receives SSI for herself only. She is my roomer/boarder because she pays me rent. We went to a Fair Hearing and the County Won!! The Law Judge agreed with the county that because the Father of the Baby, who is 15yr old remember, lives in the same household with the baby and the mother, therefore, because I am financially and legally responsible for my minor son, that pulls the baby under my income, and also pulls the mother under my household and included all of our income and now we are over the guidelines. So, what they did was make me responsible for everyone, including the Mom who I am not even related to!! What the hell is wrong with you people. After researching this regulation, I found they take Snap benefits away from teen mothers AND THEIR BABIES based on this regulation. The problem with their damn regulation is, it doesn’t specifically state anything about the father of the baby being a MINOR ALSO!! They’ll give benefits to all these refuguees, immigrants and so forth, but they’ll take benefits from an 18yr old MOTHER & HER BABY, and pin it on me and I’m disabled on a fixed income!! They make me sick!!!

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