After Leaving Welfare: Food Stamps or Not?

USDA's Food Stamp Program can ease the transition from welfare to independence by supplementing the resources of the working poor. However, many individuals who leave cash welfare, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), drop off the food stamp rolls, even though they appear to be eligible.

Past studies have identified the effects of individual and family demographics, such as marital status and household earnings, on Food Stamp Program participation. A new ERS report goes beyond the study of individual and family characteristics and examines the influence of community-level characteristics on program participation in Illinois of former welfare recipients who remain eligible for food stamps. The report concludes that the strength of community-level characteristics as an influence on a TANF leaver’s decision to participate in the Food Stamp Program depends on the density of social networks in the individual’s neighborhood.

Ties with and the frequency of contact with family, friends, and acquaintances are instrumental in helping individuals achieve certain tasks, particularly in seeking employment or accessing public benefits. Because such social networks are likely to be more concentrated in urban neighborhoods than in rural areas, the effects of community characteristics would be stronger for residents in Chicago than for downstate residents. For example, the proportion of people in poverty had a strong influence on the food stamp participation rate of TANF leavers in Chicago, but not outside Chicago. Public assistance offices often vary in the way they perform certain tasks, such as community outreach and communication. Differences in these efforts provide another source of variation in community characteristics. The study found evidence that such differences influence Food Stamp Program participation by TANF leavers, but again only in Chicago.

Other community-level characteristics, such as the proportion of single-mother households and the proportion of residents who are noncitizens, did not contribute to understanding Food Stamp Program participation by TANF leavers beyond the information measured by individual and family demographics.