M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper No. 2013-13

The Decline, Rebound, and Further Rise in SNAP Enrollment: Disentangling Business Cycle Fluctuations and Policy Changes

Peter Ganong and Jeffrey B. Liebman

November 2013

ABSTRACT

Approximately 1-in-7 people and 1-in-4 children received benefits from the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in July 2011, both all-time highs. We analyze changes in SNAP take-up
over the past two decades. From 1994 to 2001, coincident with welfare reform, take-up fell from 75% to 54% of eligible people. The take-up rate then rebounded, and, following several policy changes to improve program access, stabilized at 69% in 2007. Finally, take-up and enrollment rose dramatically in the Great Recession, with take-up reaching 87% in 2011. We find that changes in local unemployment can explain at least two-thirds of the increase in enrollment from 2007 to 2011. Increased state adoption of relaxed income and asset thresholds and temporary changes in program rules for childless adults explain 18% of the increase. Total SNAP spending today is 6% higher than it would be without these increases in eligibility. The recession-era increase in benefit levels is also likely to have increased enrollment.

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