Study shows increase in SNAP benefits could move families from food insecure to food secure
March 8, 2018
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  • /Agricultural and Consumer Economics
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URBANA, Ill. – Since its inception in 1964, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been the most important tool to reduce food insecurity in the United States. For many SNAP households, however, benefits are too low to ensure food security, according to a University of Illinois economist.

A recent study published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences looks at how much additional income in SNAP benefits would be needed in order for households to become food secure. Craig Gundersen, a professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and lead author of the paper, says this specific aspect of SNAP has not been addressed. The study identifies potential scenarios to increase SNAP benefits that could decrease food insecurity, and what it would cost to implement additional benefits.

“There’s so much talk lately about cutting back on SNAP or changing it in some way, but SNAP, I believe, is the most successful government program we have,” Gundersen says. “Instead of cutting back or making changes to the program, let’s talk about how we could really make it better.”

In the study, Gundersen and colleagues focused on eligible SNAP recipients. The group was broken down into all households or households without children. They then measured the resource gap—the difference between the resources a household has and what they would need to be food secure—using data from the 2014 Current Population Survey (CPS).

As part of the CPS, households self-reported on how much additional money they would need to have enough food. According to the study, the average resource gap for all households among SNAP recipients was calculated at $41.62 per week.

The study also considered households that were ineligible for SNAP—those falling between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line. Researchers reported that the average resource gap for SNAP-ineligible households was $30.91 per week.

Under their most plausible scenario—to increase SNAP benefits, for all households by the same amount—there would be an over 60 percent reduction in food insecurity. This would cost the federal government around $20 billion.

Gundersen believes that expanding benefits can make a big difference for recipients in the SNAP program.

“SNAP sets out to alleviate food insecurity and it does so. Part of the reason it works so well is it gives low-income families the dignity and autonomy to make their own decisions,” Gundersen adds. “There’s really no better way to reduce food insecurity in the United States than through SNAP.

“It’s so direct—we’re giving people money that they can spend on food, which would really have a huge impact,” he adds. “And, increasing their benefit levels would lead to an even larger impact of SNAP.”  

The study, “Reconstructing the supplemental nutrition assistance program to more effectively alleviate food insecurity in the United States,” is published in The Russell Sage Foundation of the Social Sciences. Co-authors include Craig Gundersen, Brent Kreider, and John V. Pepper.

Gundersen is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. He is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agricultural Strategy.