False Beliefs about Food Stamps

In this post on the University of Illinois Policy Matters blog, Craig Gundersen tries to lay to rest a few false beliefs (or misconceptions) that may people (and policy makers) have about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as "food stamps").

Does SNAP participation lead to obesity obesity?  Gundersen writes:

It is not clear why people would think SNAP leads to increases in obesity insofar as one doesn’t generally think that increasing someone’s ability to purchase food leads to higher weights. For example, one doesn’t usually think that a pay raise leads to increases in someone’s weight. Along with common sense, virtually all studies indicate that SNAP recipients are no more likely than eligible SNAP non-recipients to be obese, after controlling for selection into the program and other issues.

Does SNAP participation cut down hunger?  Gundersen writes:

the central goal of SNAP is to alleviate hunger and, in this role, SNAP has been enormously successful. (See Kreider et al., 2012, and references therein.) Along with these direct impacts on food intakes, SNAP has also been found to improve well-being over other dimensions including reductions in poverty (e.g., Tiehen et al. 2012), improvements in birth outcomes (Almond et al. 2011), lower mortality (Krueger et al. 2004), and better general health (Kreider et al. 2012). Moreover, by reducing food insecurity, the negative impacts of food insecurity on various health outcomes are diminished. (See Gundersen and Ziliak, 2015 for a review of these impacts on health.)

If you've got a relatively decent income, it might be hard to imagine how SNAP could have such dramatic hunger and health effects, but it is important to keep in mind Engel's Law: the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food than the rich.  That phenomenon is alive and well in the US, and I can see it in my Food Demand Survey (FooDS) data, which measures food expenditures.  Here's how estimated spending on food varies with household income, as measured by FooDS.

If you're on the right tail of the income distribution spending only about 5% of your income on food, then it is probably hard to imagine how food spending and eating will change when you're on the left tail of the distribution where food consumes almost 25% of the household's budget.

Finally, Gundersen takes on the idea that various health restrictions on SNAP spending will have much impact.  He writes: 

If restrictions are imposed, there is unlikely to be any change in obesity in the U.S. Instead, the main consequence will be a reduction in the number of SNAP participants. This reduction is due to two factors, stigma and transaction costs. (I concentrate on the former here, for a discussion of the latter, see Gundersen, 2015.) Stigma would increase as participants would feel singled out as being irresponsible and incapable of making well-informed food purchases. More broadly, through its message that adults receiving SNAP are not responsible enough to make their own food choices, recipients would be further stigmatized. After all, the federal government doesn’t tell, say, government employees how to spend their earnings; why do some feel it is fine to tell SNAP recipients what they can purchase? This stigmatization due to restrictions is the central reason why the USDA has rejected proposed restrictions.

Due to increased stigma and increased transactions costs, participation in SNAP will decline as recipients leave the program and potential recipients are less likely to enter the program. (For at least some advocates of SNAP restrictions, this may be their central goal for imposing restrictions.) As a consequence, the positive benefits of SNAP will be realized for fewer Americans and, in particular, there will be an increase in food insecurity and, therefore, increases in negative health outcomes and subsequent health care costs (Tarasuk et al., 2015).

To that I'll add that most SNAP participants can easily get around the restrictions on what they buy by rearranging what they buy with SNAP and what they buy with non-SNAP dollars (see my explanation of that phenomenon here).  

One might reasonably ask whether SNAP spending is too low or too high, and alternative variations on the program might be worth considering.  Either way, decisions about SNAP's future should be ideally based our our best understanding of the program's impacts rather than false beliefs.