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Can the Economy Explain the Explosion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Caseload? An Assessment of the Local-level Approach

Jacob Alex Klerman and Caroline Danielson


December 4, 2015
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has grown rapidly in recent years—by about 50% in the seven years between 2000 and 2007, and by another 70% in the four years between 2007 and 2011—such that in 2011, SNAP served 14% of the U.S. population. Contributing to our understanding of the causes of this very rapid increase in the caseload, this article extends the time period of analysis through and past the official end of the Great Recession, analyzes more geographically disaggregated caseloads and the impact of substate economic conditions, and considers the impact of recent major, state-level SNAP policy changes. In models that exploit substate-level data, we find consistent evidence of significant impacts of both the substate level and statewide economy on local area SNAP caseloads. Surprisingly, while one might have expected more geographically disaggregated data to improve the alignment of the measurement with the concept of interest (i.e., the labor market opportunities of an individual), and therefore lead to larger estimates of the impact of the economy, in fact estimates fall—perhaps due to measurement error. We find at best mixed evidence of policy impacts. Simulations indicate that the economy can account for most of the 2007 to 2011 increase in the caseload, although relatively less of the 2000 to 2007 increase. Nonetheless, the role of the economy in driving caseloads appears to be substantial in both periods.
North America