A Cross-State Examination of Families Leaving Welfare: Findings from the ASPE-Funded Leavers Studies. Food Stamps

08/01/2000

The Food Stamp Program, like Medicaid, provides benefits to most welfare families along with their cash benefits, but eligibility is not tied to welfare receipt and many families remain eligible after they leave cash assistance. Families remain eligible if their household income is below the Food Stamp eligibility limits (130 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines) and they meet the work and other requirements of the Food Stamp Program. The majority of the ASPE-funded leavers studies have found that between one-third and one-half of former recipients of cash assistance received food stamps immediately after exit, as shown in Table 6A. This same range (33 to 50 percent) was reported by two surveys asking about food stamp receipt six to eight months after exit. By one year after exit, food stamp participation rates generally fell to between 33 and 40 percent, according to the longitudinal administrative data. The percentage of leavers participating in the Food Stamp program was lower than the percentage enrolled in Medicaid across almost all the studies.

There were, however, a few exceptions to the general trends. The San Mateo study found only 10 to 15 percent of former TANF recipients in the food stamp administrative data base in any quarter. Also note that food stamp receipt in Missouri was reported as high as 47 percent two and a half years after exit, according to survey data.

As with Medicaid, participation was much lower among those who did not return to TANF. Only 20 to 30 percent of continuous leavers participated in the Food Stamp program, according to the three studies reporting such data (see Table 6B).

Participation rates in the Food Stamp program are more noticeably affected by the unit of measurement than other program participation rates, probably reflecting the short-term nature of food stamp participation for many households. Participation rates one year after exit, for example, were 21 to 35 percent when measured monthly, compared to rates of 26 to 40 percent among grantees measuring program participation across a three-month quarter. The exception is San Mateo, which measured low rates despite observing participation over a three-month quarter. Possible explanations for the low measure in San Mateo include: higher incomes among the leaver population (because eligibility limits and maximum benefits are higher than average in California), less active food stamp outreach, or technical measurement challenges with the administrative data.

It is difficult to interpret participation rates on food stamps without more information on household poverty status and food insecurity. Low rates of food stamp participation can be viewed positively, if they indicate that families leaving TANF are moving out of poverty and out of the population that is eligible for food stamps. Low rates are viewed with concern, however, when there are indications that families leaving cash assistance remain poor and eligible for food stamps, but are not receiving the nutritional benefits to which they are entitled. Concern is heightened if there is evidence that families are experiencing food shortages as a result of insufficient financial resources. The concluding section of this paper examines these critical issues of household income, poverty, and material hardship.

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