SNAP Households Adjust Their Expenditures and How They Spend Their Time in Response to Changes in Program Benefits

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The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) mandated higher monthly benefits for USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). ARRA increased SNAP benefits by a set amount for each household size. A family of four receiving the maximum monthly SNAP benefit saw its 2009 benefits increase by 13.6 percent, or about $80 per month. The new higher benefit amounts were designed to stay at the dollar amounts set by ARRA and not be adjusted for inflation until, over time, rising food prices would eventually eliminate the purchasing power of the higher benefit amounts.

However, subsequent legislation—responding to lower-than-expected food price inflation—accelerated the sunset of the ARRA benefit boost. As a result, monthly SNAP benefits decreased for the first time in the program’s history in November 2013. Maximum monthly benefits for a family of four fell by $36—a 5.4-percent decline. A recent study by ERS researchers and a colleague from Elon University looked at how SNAP participants adjusted their spending patterns and use of daily time in response to the November 2013 decline in benefits. SNAP households’ food-at-home expenditures declined by 12.6 percent from 2013 to 2014, and their transportation expenditures increased by 23.7 percent. (Food-away-from-home expenditures did not change.)

The researchers also found that SNAP households spent less time on food shopping and meal preparation and more time on work following the sunset of the ARRA increase in benefits. The time SNAP households spent traveling to grocery stores, shopping for food, and preparing food decreased from 72 minutes per day in 2013 to 67 minutes per day in 2014. Low-income non-SNAP households spent the same amount of time on food shopping and cooking—51 minutes per day—in both years. Average time spent on food away from home (traveling and purchasing) did not vary statistically for either SNAP or non-SNAP households.

Between 2013 and 2014, SNAP households increased their work time by 23 minutes per day (192 minutes per day in 2014 versus 169 minutes per day in 2013), driven by increases in time spent in both formal jobs and informal income-generating work, such as work done on the side or under informal arrangements. The change in time spent in work between 2013 and 2014 was not statically significant for non-SNAP households.

These findings are consistent with the drop in food expenditures and the increase in transportation expenditures, as SNAP participants increased their time in work. The results from this research, when taken together, suggest that decreasing SNAP benefits led to reductions in both food expenditures and time spent in food shopping and preparation, but to more time spent on work.