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

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1-in-7 Americans received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in July 2011, an all-time high. We analyze changes in SNAP enrollment over the past two decades. Business cycle fluctuations correlate strongly with SNAP take-up, with a sustained one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate raising SNAP enrollment by 18 percent. Policy changes had different impacts in different periods. From 1994 to 2001, coincident with welfare reform, take-up fell from 75 percent to 54 percent of eligible people, with this decline attributable to both the strong economy and to welfare reform. The take-up rate then rebounded, and, following several policy changes to improve program access, stabilized at 69 percent in 2007. At least half of the increase in take-up during this period was policy-driven. Finally, take-up rose dramatically in the Great Recession, reaching 87 percent in 2011. We find that changes in local unemployment can explain 73 percent the increase in enrollment during the Great Recession and temporary rule changes that are triggered when unemployment is high can explain another 10 percent. Permanent state-level policy expansions can explain only 8 percent. Thus most of the recession-era increase in SNAP enrollment was the result of the program’s automatic stabilizer features. 


Second round Revise and Resubmit at American Economic Journal: Economic Policy