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Food Stamp Participation Increases

Friday, July 16, 2004

Food Stamp Participation Increases in April 2004 to 23.9 Million Persons

Participation in the Food Stamp Program in April 2004 (the latest data available) increased by 81,809 persons from the previous month, to 23,884,312 persons. Some of this increase was due to continuing high rates of joblessness, states improving access, and the effects of the food stamp reauthorization implementation.

The April 2004 level of Food Stamp Program participation represented a rise of more than 2.6 million persons compared to the April 2003 level and nearly 6.6 million persons since July, 2000 (when program participation nationally reached its lowest point in the last decade).

Caseloads dropped through 1998 and 1999 as the economy improved and many states failed to get food stamps to low-income families who had left cash welfare for low-paid work. Caseloads then stabilized and began rising in 2000. Increases in participation since 2001 likely have been driven by improved access to the program in states, including most recently for legal immigrants, and by the weakened economy.

Participation has risen in 38 of the last 42 months. Participation in April 2004 rose in 49 states and the District of Columbia compared to a year earlier.

Nonetheless, research suggests that nearly one in four eligible people are not receiving food stamp benefits. Fortunately, tools are available to bring federal food stamp dollars into families and communities, where each dollar is estimated to produce nearly two dollars in economic activity.

Trends: 1998-2001

From December 1997 to December 2000, the food stamp caseload fell by 3.5 million persons. Some reduction in poverty and improvement in the overall unemployment rate contributed to these Food Stamp Program caseload declines, but other factors, including negative program changes by Congress, interactions with the cash public assistance system that make food stamp access harder for eligible families, and lack of information about the program among potentially eligible people, explained much of the drop.

Because of the 1996 welfare law, by August 22, 1997 most legal immigrants lost eligibility for federal food stamp benefits. Some immigrants were made newly eligible November 1, 1998, but a majority remained barred from the program. (Important additional improvements are occurring in 2003.)

The period after March 1997 was also marked by implementation of cuts in Food Stamp Program eligibility for many childless, jobless adults. Implementation of the new, separate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program established by the 1996 welfare law also had major, unintended, adverse effects on the Food Stamp Program, as families lost food stamps (for which many were still eligible) at the same time that they lost TANF benefits.

According to a July 2001 USDA report to Congress, over half (56 percent) of caseload declines between 1994 and 1999 "occurred because fewer eligible individuals participated in the program," rather than because of the economy or changes in eligibility rules. Further, USDA finds, "nearly a quarter of all leavers (from food stamps) experienced hunger in the first year after leaving the Food Stamp Program."

Trends: 2001-2004

Rising unemployment and underemployment levels, improved processes in some states at application, better rules in many states, such as no longer treating vehicles as a resource barring eligibility, and other increased efforts by states and non-profit groups to connect eligible persons with benefits, have contributed to the increase in Food Stamp Program participation in the last three years.

Pursuant to the 2002 Farm Bill, many legal immigrants became newly eligible for benefits in 2003 (as of April 2003, those residing in the US at least 5 years; as of October 2003, those under 18 regardless of date of entry). 

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