The 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricanes' Effect on Food Stamp Program Caseloads and Benefits Issued
by Kenneth Hanson and Victor Oliveira
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-37) 30 pp, February 2007
In fall 2005, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma devastated
areas along much of the Gulf Coast, resulting in greater demand for
food stamps by millions of Gulf Coast State residents and evacuees.
Hurricane Katrina came ashore in Louisiana on August 29. Hurricane
Rita made landfall on September 24 near the Louisiana/Texas border.
Hurricane Wilma hit Florida on October 24.
During disasters, USDA delivers emergency food assistance in two
ways. Initially, emergency food commodities are provided to
shelters, to other mass feeding sites, and directly to households
when normal commercial channels of food distribution may be
disrupted. USDA also issues emergency food stamps through the
Disaster Food Stamp Program (DFSP), an extension of the regular
Food Stamp Program. Under the DFSP, eligibility requirements are
temporarily relaxed so that benefits can be quickly provided to
households that may not ordinarily qualify for food stamps but
suddenly need food assistance.
What Is the Issue?
The Federal response to the disasters has received much
attention; information about food stamp use will help provide a
more complete picture of the use of public assistance both during
and after the hurricanes. To provide this information, we examined
the effect of the hurricanes on food stamp caseloads and benefits
What Did the Study Find?
One effect of the hurricanes was a dramatic spike in both Food
Stamp Program caseloads and benefits issued. In November 2005, 29.7
million people received food stamps, the largest number ever to
receive food stamps in a single month and about 4 million-or 15
percent-more than just 3 months earlier.
State-Level Impacts. During the peak-impact period of September
to November 2005, the average Food Stamp Program caseload increased
by 12 percent relative to the pre-hurricane period of March to
August 2005. As would be expected, most of this increase in
caseload occurred in the five Gulf Coast States hardest hit by the
hurricanes-Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Average monthly caseloads in these Disaster States during the
peak-impact period increased by 48 percent compared with only 2
percent for the other States. However, the hurricanes' impact in
terms of both magnitude and duration differed widely among the five
Disaster States. For example, the increase in caseload was largest
in Florida, but the effect was brief, lasting only 1 month.
Louisiana experienced a large increase in caseload lasting several
months before dropping to below pre-hurricane levels. In Texas,
caseload remained significantly above pre-hurricane levels even 5
months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
By March 2006, food stamp caseloads in the Disaster States were
only 1 percent greater than the pre-hurricane caseloads in August
2005. Of the five Disaster States, Texas was the only one in which
the food stamp caseload in March 2006 exceeded the caseload in
The impact of the hurricanes also spread to other States because
of their enrollment of hurricane evacuees in the Food Stamp
Program. Average caseloads in the Major Evacuee States increased by
5 percent compared with only 2 percent in all other Unaffected
The hurricanes also affected the average food stamp benefit per
person, which increased in Disaster States during the peak-impact
period. In addition, the average size of food stamp households in
Disaster States increased in November. However, this result was due
to the situation in Florida, where the average size of households
enrolling in the DFSP was larger than the average size of
households participating in the regular Food Stamp Program.
National-Level Impacts. We estimate that the hurricanes
increased food stamp benefits issued from September 2005 through
January 2006 by almost $1.2 billion compared with what they would
have been without the hurricanes. Although the hurricanes have had
long-lasting effects on some local areas, this analysis suggests
that, by February 2006, the effect of the hurricanes on food stamp
caseloads and benefits issued at the national level had largely
dissipated. The estimate of the hurricanes' impact on the Food
Stamp Program reported here is more comprehensive than estimates
derived solely from State administrative reports of disaster
We estimate that the difference between actual caseloads and
what caseloads would have been without the hurricanes was 2 million
people in September, due to Hurricane Katrina. In October, the
estimated difference was 2.15 million people due to Hurricanes Rita
and Katrina. Hurricane Wilma caused a large 1-month increase in
caseload for Florida, resulting in an estimated difference of 3.74
million people in November 2005. The actual and estimated food
stamp caseloads for the Disaster States converged in February 2006
at a level of 5.43 million, about equal to the pre-hurricane level
in August 2005 of 5.38 million.
How Was the Study Conducted?
The study uses 13 months (March 2005-March 2006) of State-level
data from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) on Food Stamp
Program caseloads and benefits issued to examine the hurricanes'
impact on food stamp caseloads and benefits issued. The study
analyzes caseloads for three groups of States-Disaster States,
Major Evacuee States, and Unaffected States-over 3 distinct
periods-6-month pre-hurricane period, 3-month peak-impact period,
and 4-month post-hurricane period. Regression analyses were used to
estimate what the national food stamp caseloads and benefits issued
would have been in the absence of the hurricanes. The estimates of
caseloads and benefits issued in the absence of the hurricanes were
used to determine the impact of the hurricanes at the national