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Why Don't San Diegoans Participate in Food Stamps?

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Feb 24, 2009 at 19:02:16 PM PST

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When you look at food stamp (now called SNAP) participation rates, California as a state ranks 4th from the bottom. And if you look at the food stamp participation rates of the 24 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, San Diego ranks dead last. This means hungry people don't eat, but it also means that San Diego county loses $144 million annually. And that's $144 million in the form of the very best economic stimulus the government can give us - each dollar of food stamps generates about $1.80 in economic activity.

Let's take a look at San Diego as a case study: Why aren't San Diegoans getting food stamps? And what can we learn from San Diego that might help us increase the participation rate nationally.

Jill Richardson :: Why Don't San Diegoans Participate in Food Stamps?
First up, those eligible for food stamps don't all participate at the same rate. Take a look at this:

Food Stamp Participation in 2003
56% of total eligible population
74% of eligible children
28% of eligible elderly individuals
62% of individuals in households with no earnings
47% of individuals in households with earnings

Source: Sources of Variation in State-Level Food Stamp Participation (PDF)

So when you see the HUGE discrepancy between the 89.5% of eligible food stamp recipients who participated in Missouri in 2003 and the miserably low 29% of those who participate in San Diego, that explains part of what's going on. If San Diego's eligible population is made up of demographics that are less likely to participate, then naturally San Diego's participation rate will be lower as a result.

That explains SOME of the discrepancy but not all. Another possible explanation is that differing state policies make it more or less likely for those eligible to apply or receive food stamps. For example:

  • Certification period - How frequently must an applicant reapply (between 3-12 months)
  • Reporting requirement - Are applicants required to report any changes in income? (And if so, how frequently?)
  • Categorical eligibility - Is any group of people automatically eligible for food stamps if they are eligible for another government program?
  • Fingerprinting - Are applicants subject to fingerprinting, which might discourage some from applying?
  • Application page length
  • Work requirements - Are able bodied adults required to work?
  • Number of visits required to apply
  • State outreach - Does the state engage in any outreach activities?

I can imagine that if your state makes it a real pain in the butt to apply for food stamps, you might just give up. Especially if you wouldn't receive very much in benefits anyway. Maybe you'd make that first trip to apply but if subsequent visits were required, they want your fingerprint, and the application's long, maybe you don't bother. Or maybe you bother the first time, but three months later when they want you to re-certify, it's just not worth the hassle.

The USDA crunched the numbers to see if the make-up of the population accounted for the differences in participation rates (it did some, but not too significantly), or if different state policies explained the discrepancies. The answer? Well, they couldn't find any statistically significant difference in participation rates based on the policies.

However, they also say that they doubt that the variation in participation rates is totally random. And it's hard to believe that a state that makes its application process difficult and obnoxious wouldn't have any effect on its participation rate.

The USDA suspects that their inability to account for differences in participation may be due to lack of sufficient data or overly imprecise data, or perhaps similar policies are implemented differently, making statistical comparisons between them impossible. (For example, if two states had an identical policy but implemented it differently. When the USDA does its number crunching these states would be lumped into the same category but in reality food stamp applicants in either state would have very different experiences.) Another possibility is that "aggregate measures may mask meaningful local variations." Last, perhaps state procedures - how the states actually do what they do - are more important than state policies.

I'm glad the USDA is looking into this, and I hope they can find an answer that explains why 70% of those eligible for food stamps in San Diego do not receive them.

Participation Rate (%) by State (2003)
Missouri 89.5
Oregon 85.7
Tennessee 83.1
Hawaii 79.1
DC 74.3
Oklahoma 73.0
Maine 69.9
Kentucky 68.9
Mississippi 67.9
Georgia 67.5
Louisiana 66.2
South Carolina 65.9
Ohio 65.2
Michigan 65.1
Arizona 65.0
West Virginia 64.9
Indiana 63.6
Minnesota 63.1
Alaska 61.5
Vermont 60.8
Illinois 60.6
Nebraska 60.5
Arkansas 60.1
North Dakota 57.8
Iowa 57.2
Delaware 54.8
South Dakota 54.3
Idaho 54.2
Alabama 54.1
Pennsylvania 54.0
Connecticut 53.8
Wisconsin 53.3
Kansas 53.0
New Mexico 53.0
Rhode Island 51.9
Virginia 51.5
Washington 51.4
Utah 50.9
New York 50.2
New Hampshire 49.7
Wyoming 49.2
Florida 48.9
New Jersey 48.7
Maryland 48.1
Texas 47.4
Colorado 45.5
North Carolina 45.4
California 45.3
Montana 44.6
Nevada 41.0
Massachusetts 40.1

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Ouch... (4.00 / 2)

That's ridiculously low...

Related NYTimes Editorial... (4.00 / 2)
Just found this from today -

In seeking an instant jolt to the economy, almost nothing beats food stamps. Hungry people who get federal food aid don't horde it. They don't put vouchers under the mattress. They rush out and spend their share at the corner grocery or deli or bodega - sustaining not only themselves, but also the local economy.

For those reasons, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's cramped food-relief policy makes little sense. The federal stimulus plan allows one big category of food stamp recipients - able-bodied single adults without dependents - to remain eligible to receive stamps until Sept. 30, 2010. Present law limits these recipients to three months of food stamps in a three-year period.

I wonder if it's the way the food stamps transactions are processed. (4.00 / 2)
My anecdotal evidence - take it for what it's worth.

I don't know if you've ever been in line behind someone with the vouchers, but each voucher has to be rung up as a separate transaction. For obvious reasons, this vastly increases the amount of time that the person bearing the food stamps must sit there, in a very Republican part of town, mired in the reality that they don't have enough money to feed their family.

I know that I had a friend who became eligible for food stamps after her husband left her and her infant and toddler daughters for another woman, and who then promptly was fired from his job. She took the food stamps because she had no choice. And she said that she just dreaded going to the grocery store and would time her visits for the absolute lightest traffic time she possibly could because it was bad enough dealing with her broken heart; dealing with snotty cashiers and muttered comments from those behind her were just soul crushing.  

one of my friends told me (4.00 / 2)
that when he and his brother were little, his mom got food stamps for a while. This would have been in the 1970s. Even though it wasn't her fault that she was in need, she used to drive all the way to the other side of town so that no one she knew would see her using them in the grocery store.

[ Parent ]
They said in the PDF I linked to (4.00 / 1)
that the EBT cards used now eliminated some of the stigma of using vouchers. WIC, on the other hand, still uses the vouchers I believe.

Ironically though, the guy who's behind the EBT cards is still at the USDA and seems to be moving up the ladder a bit... AND his son is a Kossack and lives in San Diego (a friend of mine). So maybe we can find out through him what happens for WIC re: EBT cards and if they aren't in use yet, if they could be soon.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
good post--got me thinking (4.00 / 1)
and writing at Bleeding Heartland:


I found some state by state data for 2004, 2005 and 2006 here:

It looks like quite a few states improved their participation rates. Iowa's was up to an estimated 71 percent by 2006, but we still only rank 20th.

I should add that (4.00 / 1)
California is still dead last on the chart for 2006.  

[ Parent ]
nice (0.00 / 0)
the USDA was working with old data.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Hey Jill, check out this article! (4.00 / 1)

I thought it was very interesting, given this recent discussion.

whoa, did you notice in there (4.00 / 1)
that we fingerprint? No wonder CA's got the worst participation! I wonder which other states fingerprint and if they are the other ones with bad participation?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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