Ignore The Spin: Why Food Stamp Enrollment Isn’t Shrinking (Yet)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, expanded rapidly during the Great Recession, when millions of workers lost jobs and entered poverty, forcing them to turn to the government’s social safety net for help. But even as the economy has begun to recover, SNAP “isn’t shrinking back alongside the recovery,” the Wall Street Journal warned today.

States and the federal government both expanded SNAP access before and during the recession in an attempt to extend more aid to struggling Americans. That has led Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) aching to cut the supposedly “unsustainable” program, since its costs and enrollment are both at record levels. In the piece, the Journal admits that “the biggest factor behind the upward march of food stamps is a sluggish job market and a rising poverty rate,” but it then asks whether those expansions have made the program far more costly over the long-run and wonders why SNAP enrollment hasn’t dropped along with unemployment rates:

The food-stamp rolls have swollen since 2008 and are projected to stay that way for years. In 2008, SNAP enrollment was 28.2 million. Unemployment peaked in October 2009 at 10% and was at 7.7% as of February, but SNAP kept growing.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts unemployment will drop to 5.6% by 2017 but that SNAP enrollment will drop slightly to 43.3 million people, down 4.5 million from the current level.That makes it very different from the other big federal support program, unemployment insurance, which shrinks as the economy improves. Continued jobless claims dropped to 3.1 million in February after peaking at 6.6 million in May 2009.


Unemployment insurance enrollment has dropped because it is based on unemployment. SNAP, however, is based on income, which is why it tracks not with the unemployment rate but with poverty levels, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows:

That SNAP isn’t shrinking at the same rate as unemployment insurance isn’t exactly a shocking revelation, especially since 58 percent of the jobs created since the recession are in low-wage sectors that are less likely to pull workers out of poverty and off of food stamps. The poverty rate rose sharply after the recession, and it hasn’t dropped significantly since the recovery began. But for all the concerns about SNAP’s long-term costs, the program is projected to return to its return to its historical spending levels by 2023:

The Journal actually acknowledges that the expansions make little difference in the cost of the program, but not until the second-to-last paragraph. “The Congressional Budget Office said reinstating eligibility limits would save around $4.5 billion over 10 years, a fraction of the program’s total cost over that time,” it writes there, all but admitting that the reason SNAP expanded is not because the government made it easier to enroll but because the economy contracted and plunged millions of people into poverty. That, in short, is exactly what the program is supposed to do.