Food-stamp use is still at recession-era levels despite job gains
Judging by the number of Americans on food stamps, it doesn't feel like one of the best job markets in almost a half century and the second-longest economic expansion on record.
Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, fell to 39.6 million in April, the most recent government data show. That's down from a record 47.8 million in 2012, but as a share of the population it's just back to where it was as the economy emerged from the longest and deepest downturn since the Great Depression.
While robust growth is a bragging point for President Donald Trump and a campaign theme for Republicans trying to break a historical pattern by keeping control of the House and Senate in midterm elections, the rising tide isn't lifting all boats. Elevated SNAP use displeases congressional Republicans, who want a shift toward more job training in the five-year farm bill that's taking shape. Democrats say continued support is needed as an uneven rebound leaves behind millions.
"The economic recovery took longer to reach people who work in low-wage jobs," said Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and a former Congressional Budget Office analyst. SNAP enrollments have remained elevated for years because of higher participation rates in the program, and because the jobless are only one segment of the needy.
SNAP is available for households with incomes up to $2,665 per month for a family of four, or 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Recipients are also subject to asset and employment tests, and states can modify the program with federal permission. Households receiving SNAP had an average monthly gross income of $814 in 2016, and 20 percent had no income.
Food-stamp use generally responds to economic conditions, but it's not quite a direct link, according to Parke Wilde, a professor at Tufts University's nutrition school in Boston. "We're many years into an economic expansion after the Great Recession and just now we're starting to enjoy dips in SNAP participation," Wilde said, as lower unemployment begins to chip away at economic insecurity.
Another reason SNAP use is falling is because eligibility is tightening for able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who don't have dependents and have been jobless for more than three months. Many states that asked for expanded access to food stamps because of high unemployment are no longer asking for waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents who aren't working.
Declines aside, other factors are likely to support continued use of food stamps.
Applying for benefits has gotten easier, in part because online access has increased. That's helped lift enrollment to 83 percent of those eligible for food stamps in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, up from 69 percent in 2006, according to the USDA.
Wilde of Tufts said SNAP use will decline modestly, remaining elevated by historical standards until the next contraction inevitably rolls around -- potentially sending enrollments to new heights. "We're still at fairly high participation rates," he said.