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Food insecurity varies by adult employment status

Friday, March 1, 2019

The prevalence of food insecurity—having difficulty providing enough food for all household members at some time during the year—varies across U.S. households by employment status of adult members. While some types of households may be more likely to be food insecure, those households may be less numerous and therefore make up a small share of all food-insecure households. For example, food insecurity rates in 2017 were highest for households with no one employed or retired and someone unemployed looking for work (42.7 percent) or with someone out of the labor force because of a disability (43.0 percent), but those households accounted for 5.2 and 15.1 percent, respectively, of all food-insecure households. In contrast, the food insecurity rate among households with an adult working full time was a relatively low 9.4 percent, but those households made up slightly over half of all food-insecure households, demonstrating that full-time employment does not fully protect households from food insecurity. Wages and benefits—not just number of hours worked—along with non-food obligations for the family’s earnings, can have significant effects on a household’s food-insecurity risk. A version of this chart appears in the ERS data visualization “Food insecurity and very low food security by education, employment, disability status, and SNAP participation.

2018 Farm Act maintains current work requirements for USDA’s SNAP program

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Signed into law December 20, 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Act) reauthorized USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Nation’s largest food assistance program, through fiscal 2023. Although the program’s eligibility guidelines and work requirements were a major focus of legislative debate, they were not changed in the final legislation. Under current rules, working-age SNAP recipients, with some exceptions, must register for work and accept a suitable job if offered. In addition, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 with no dependents (ABAWDs) who work less than 20 hours a week can receive SNAP benefits for only 3 months out of every 3 years. States can request from USDA a waiver of this time limit in locations where unemployment rates are high or jobs are insufficient, as measured by a limited set of economic indicators. As of December 2018, four States (Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico)—along with the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands—had received USDA approval to waive the time limit on ABAWDs receiving SNAP benefits. Another 29 States had ABAWD time limit waivers in specific locations, and 17 States were enforcing the limit. USDA proposed new rules, published in the Federal Register on February 1, 2019, to tighten the conditions under which States could be approved to implement ABAWD waivers. This chart appears in the Nutrition Title section of The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, produced by ERS researchers.

Increased breastfeeding rates among WIC infants would raise program costs

Friday, February 15, 2019

Breastfeeding promotion and support is a priority in USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Although breastfeeding rates among infants participating in WIC have been increasing in recent decades, they remain below those of other infants. At the request of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, ERS examined the economic impacts of breastfeeding on the WIC program. ERS researchers estimated the economic costs and benefits if breastfeeding rates for WIC infants were more aligned with medically recommended levels i.e., if 90 percent of infants participating in WIC in 2016 had been exclusively breastfed for their first 6 months, followed by another 6 months with complementary foods—but no infant formula. Results from the analysis indicate that the number of mothers who participated in WIC that year would have increased by 646,000 per month, an 8-percent increase in the monthly number of total participants. This increase is the result of breastfeeding mothers being able to participate in WIC for 12 months postpartum versus 6 months for nonbreastfeeding mothers. Although infants’ food package costs would have decreased by $546.7 million that year, mothers’ food package costs would have increased by $512.9 million, and nutrition services and administrative costs would have increased by another $286.2 million. The net effect would have been an increase of $252.4 million—a 4-percent increase in total 2016 program costs. This chart appears in the ERS report, The Economic Impacts of Breastfeeding: A Focus on USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), released on February 14, 2019.

2018 Farm Act mandates spending of $428 billion over 5 years

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Act) was signed into law December 20, 2018, and will remain in force through the end of fiscal year 2023, although some provisions extend beyond 2023. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the new Farm Act will mandate spending of $428 billion dollars over the next 5 fiscal years (2019-2023). A large majority of projected spending—76 percent ($326.02 billion)—will fund nutrition programs, with most going to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Crop insurance ($38.01 billion), farm commodity programs ($31.44 billion), and conservation programs ($29.27 billion) account for nearly all of the remaining outlays. Approximately 0.8 percent ($3.54 billion) will fund all other programs, including trade, credit, rural development, research and extension, forestry, energy, horticulture, and miscellaneous programs. Overall, the new Farm Act makes fewer changes to food and farm policy than the 2014 Farm Act. Nutrition policy, particularly SNAP, will continue with minor changes. Crop insurance options and agricultural commodity programs will continue largely as under the 2014 Farm Act. All major conservation programs will continue, although some were modified significantly. This chart appears in “The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications,” December 20, 2018.

Prevalence of food insecurity varies across the country

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

USDA monitors the extent of food insecurity in U.S. households at the national and State levels. Food-insecure households are defined as those that had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of their members due to a lack of resources. Food insecurity rates vary across States because of differing characteristics of the population, State-level policies, and economic conditions. The estimated prevalence of food insecurity during 2015-17 ranged from 7.4 percent of the population in Hawaii to 17.9 percent in New Mexico. Data for 2015-17 were combined to provide more reliable State statistics than 1 year alone would provide. In 11 States, the prevalence of food insecurity was higher than the 2015-17 national average of 12.3 percent, and in 15 States, it was lower than the national average. In the remaining 24 States and the District of Columbia, differences from the national average were not statistically significant. This map appears in ERS’s Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

How labor markets are defined matters when gauging SNAP participants’ response to economic conditions

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A recent ERS study examined the responsiveness of participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to changes in local labor market conditions. The researchers used SNAP administrative records from Oregon to estimate the likelihood of nondisabled, or able-bodied, working-age people leaving SNAP as local labor market conditions improve. Favorable labor market conditions were more likely to lead to SNAP exits when labor market areas were defined as commuting zones, a definition that explicitly tries to capture areas where people live and work. In Oregon commuting zones, a 10-percent increase in the number of people employed was estimated to raise the likelihood that the average able-bodied, working-age (ages 25-59) SNAP participant left the program within a year by 8.7 percent, and a 10-percent increase in local new hires was estimated to raise the likelihood of leaving SNAP by 1.5 percent. Defining the local labor market area to coincide with Oregon counties, rather than commuting zones, resulted in smaller—but still positive—estimated effects. This chart appears in “Local Labor Market Conditions Impact Participation in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, September 2018.

Prevalence of food insecurity varied by household characteristics in 2017

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

While the majority of U.S. households are food secure, a minority experience food insecurity at times during the year, meaning their access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by a lack of money or other resources. Some households experience very low food security, a more severe range of food insecurity, where the food intake of one or more household members is reduced and normal eating patterns are disrupted. Food insecurity includes both very low food security and low food security. In 2017, 11.8 percent of all U.S households were food insecure. The prevalence of food insecurity was substantially higher for low-income households; 36.8 percent of households with incomes below the Federal poverty line were food insecure. Among all U.S. households, food insecurity rates were the highest for single-mother households (30.3 percent) and lowest for multiple-adult households with no children (7.7 percent). A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2017, September 2018.

Districts with high-poverty schools generally make greater use of USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision for school meals

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows eligible schools in high-poverty areas to offer free USDA school meals to all students. Eligibility to use CEP is based on the share of students participating in specified income-based assistance programs—known as the Identified Student Percentage (ISP). Schools are eligible to use CEP if the ISP for the school, group of schools, or district is at least 40 percent. ERS researchers used administrative data from USDA and States for the 2015-16 school year to group eligible school districts into categories based on the highest school-level ISP in the district. The researchers found that more than half of districts with schools in ISP ranges between 61 and 90 percent used CEP in at least one of their schools. Under CEP, USDA reimburses schools at the higher free-meal rates for a portion of the meals served, and the remaining meals are reimbursed at the lower paid-meal rates. At ISP levels above 62.5 percent, all meals are reimbursed at the free rates. This reimbursement schedule likely contributes to districts with schools with higher needs making greater use of CEP. However, districts that have schools with ISP levels of 91-100 percent had a lower CEP adoption rate. Some districts may have felt less need to adopt CEP because so many children’s eligibility for free meals was already established through participation in other programs. This chart appears in “High-Poverty Schools Are More Likely To Adopt the Community Eligibility Provision of the USDA School Meal Programs” in the September 2018 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Forty-four States allowed households to apply online for SNAP benefits in 2016

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest of USDA’s 15 food and nutrition assistance programs, providing monthly benefits for purchasing food to those who apply for the program and meet the income and other eligibility criteria. In fiscal 2017, 42.1 million Americans were enrolled in the program during an average month. ERS’s SNAP Policy Database provides information on policies in the 50 States and the District of Columbia that may affect SNAP participation. For example, online applications allow individuals to complete and submit an application for SNAP benefits over the Internet. Applicants then undergo an interview at the SNAP office or over the phone to complete the application process. Online applications first became available in January 2002 and were offered in 44 States by December 2016. Although not all SNAP applicants use the online option, a high percentage of the SNAP caseload resides in States where it is available. The 44 States that provided online applications accounted for 93 percent of the national SNAP caseload in 2016. The monthly State-level information contained in the database can facilitate research on factors that may have an effect on SNAP participation and the program’s impacts. The information for this chart can be found in ERS’s SNAP Policy Database.

Percent of residents participating in SNAP varies across States

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—USDA’s largest food assistance program—provided assistance to 42 million low-income individuals in the United States in 2017. These individuals accounted for 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, down from 13.7 percent in 2016. The share of Americans participating in SNAP has declined each year since 15.1 percent participated in 2013. In 2017, the State shares of residents receiving SNAP benefits ranged from 22.1 percent in New Mexico to 5.7 percent in Wyoming. Differences in the State shares reflect differences in economic conditions, need, and program policies. Among seven FNS-defined regions nationwide, in 2017, the Southeast region had the highest average share of residents receiving SNAP benefits at 15.1 percent, and the Mountain Plains region had the lowest average share of residents receiving SNAP at 9.6 percent. This chart appears in “Participation in SNAP Varies Across States But Is Generally Decreasing” in the September 2018 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Eligible schools can offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of USDA’s National School Lunch Program allows eligible schools in high poverty areas to offer USDA school meals at no charge to all students. CEP reduces the administrative burden associated with collecting paper applications and meal payments from students. Eligibility to use CEP is based on the share of students participating in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other specific income-based assistance programs—known as the Identified Student Percentage (ISP). Schools are eligible to use CEP if the ISP for the school, group of schools, or district is at least 40 percent. USDA reimburses schools for meals according to a formula based on the ISP. Following a 3-year phase-in during which CEP was only available in a limited number of States, the provision was offered to all eligible school districts in the 2014-15 school year. Thirty-two percent of eligible districts used CEP in at least one of their schools in 2014-15, 37 percent in 2015-16, and 47 percent in 2016-17. A recent ERS study found that use of CEP was generally higher for poorer districts, districts in States that were part of the phase-in period, and schools in the Southeast. The data for this chart are from the ERS report, Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program, released on August 28, 2018.

Prices of reduced-fat milk in WIC transactions vary by store type

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides benefits for specific types and quantities of foods to low-income pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women; infants; and children up to age 5. Many State WIC agencies authorize a variety of large and small stores to redeem WIC benefits, in part to ensure geographic access for WIC participants. A recent ERS study examined prices paid in WIC transactions in four States for reduced-fat milk, one of the most widely redeemed foods in the program. Findings from the two States with substantial numbers of both small and large WIC-authorized stores show that reduced-fat milk WIC prices varied substantially across store types in counter intuitive ways. After controlling for store size and rurality, chain supermarkets/grocery stores in both States had significantly lower reduced-fat milk prices than supercenters (e.g., Target or Walmart; 35 to 79 cents per gallon lower) which are often known for low prices. While small and nontraditional food stores tended to have higher prices for reduced-fat milk, reduced-fat milk prices were lower in WIC-authorized pharmacies and discount stores in the Midwest State. Reduced-fat milk prices at small and nontraditional food stores versus supercenters ranged widely from 23 cents less to 63 cents more. The data for this chart are from the ERS report Price Variability Across Food Product and Vendor Type in Food Benefit Redemptions under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC), released July 31, 2018.

Participation in USDA’s Summer Food Service Program varies across States

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When school is not in session, USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) provides free meals and snacks to children and teens at approved sites such as schools, churches, parks, community centers, and day camp programs. SFSP meals must meet Federal nutrition guidelines and are served in areas with high concentrations of low-income children. In July 2016, the percent of a State’s total population participating in SFSP ranged from 0.2 percent in Arizona to 2.1 percent in New York. That same year, 4.2 percent of the District of Columbia’s population participated in the program. Demographic factors help explain differences in program participation as a percentage of total population; higher SFSP participation rates could reflect a higher proportion of school-age children relative to total population or a higher number of low-income children relative to the overall school-age population. Differences in availability and accessibility of SFSP sites also play an important role in the variability across States. Many low-income children also obtain free meals while school is out through the Seamless Summer Option of the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, not included in this map. This chart appears in the ERS topic page Summer Food Service Program, updated June 19, 2018.

Nutrition scores for Americans’ food acquisitions vary by source

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Using data from USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), ERS researchers calculated nutrition scores for foods purchased or acquired for free by three groups: participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), low-income non-SNAP households, and higher income non-SNAP households. For the scores, the researchers used the Healthy Eating Index-2010, which is a measure of dietary quality that assesses conformance to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scores run from 0 to 100 and summarize how well the week’s foods compare to Federal dietary recommendations—a higher score reflects a healthier diet. Foods acquired at large grocery stores were more nutritious than foods from smaller stores or from restaurants and other eating places. However, grocery store purchases by SNAP households scored 4 and 8 points below purchases by low-income and higher income non-SNAP households, respectively. For SNAP households, school food rivaled large grocery stores for nutritional quality. This is likely because meals served as part of USDA’s school lunch and breakfast programs must meet Federal nutrition standards. SNAP participants are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals and likely rely more on these meals and less on snacks and other items sold in schools that are not required to meet the same nutrition standards as USDA school meals. A version of this chart appears in the February 2018 Amber Waves article, "Supermarkets, Schools, and Social Gatherings: Where Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Other U.S. Households Acquire Their Foods Correlates With Nutritional Quality."

Economic conditions and program policy help drive average SNAP benefit levels

Thursday, May 3, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides low-income households with monthly benefits to supplement their resources for purchasing food. Benefit amounts increase with household size and decrease with household income. Between 1980 and 2017, average monthly benefits grew from $34 per person to $126 per person. Much of this increase reflects the fact that SNAP benefit levels are updated annually for food price inflation so that their purchasing power does not erode. However, even when benefits are adjusted for inflation, average per person benefits rise and fall as characteristics of SNAP households, such as income, change in response to economic conditions and policy changes. Measured in 2017 dollars to adjust for inflation, average monthly SNAP benefits increased from $99 per person in 1980 to $119 in 2008. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided all recipients with increased SNAP benefits, and average inflation-adjusted SNAP benefits jumped to $143 per person in that year, climbed to $152 in 2010, and then began falling as the ARRA increase was phased out and economic conditions improved. Inflation-adjusted and nominal benefit amounts have been similar in the past few years, as food price increases have been small. This chart appears in ERS’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) topic page.

Number of stores authorized to accept SNAP benefits grew by over 50 percent in the last decade

Monday, March 19, 2018

In 2016, low-income participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) received an average of about $126 in benefits each month to purchase eligible food items in authorized retail food stores. To become an authorized SNAP store, retailers are required to meet various criteria based in part on the types of food offered for sale. As of September 2016, over a quarter million (260,115) food retailers were authorized to redeem SNAP benefits. From 2007 to 2013, the number of SNAP-authorized stores grew by 53 percent. This increase coincided with a sharp rise in the number of SNAP participants that was largely due to the economic downturn, including the Great Recession of 2007-09, which increased demand for food assistance. Much of the growth in the number of SNAP stores was the result of more convenience stores applying for and receiving authorization to accept SNAP benefits. The number of SNAP-authorized convenience stores doubled from 2007 to 2016. By 2016, convenience stores accounted for 45 percent of all SNAP-authorized stores, but these stores accounted for just 6 percent of SNAP redemptions. This chart is from "Eligibility Requirements for SNAP Retailers: Balancing Access, Nutrition, and Integrity" in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, January 2018.

Decline in WIC participation persists

Friday, March 16, 2018

USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides supplemental food, nutrition education, and health care referrals to low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women as well as infants and children up to age 5. In fiscal 2017, the program served an average of 7.3 million people per month, down 21 percent from its peak in fiscal 2010. For the 7th consecutive year, participation for all three major groups fell. The number of women, infants, and children participating in WIC each fell by 5-6 percent. Improving economic conditions in recent years have likely played a role in the participation decline. Since applicants must have incomes at or below 185 percent of poverty or participate in certain other assistance programs to be eligible, the number of people eligible for WIC is closely linked to the health of the U.S. economy. Falling WIC caseloads may also reflect the decline in the number of U.S. births. Since 2007, the number of births have fallen each year except in 2014. This chart appears in the ERS report, The Food Assistance Landscape: FY 2017 Annual Report, released on March 15, 2018.

Working-age adults comprise 44 percent of SNAP participants

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In an average month in fiscal 2017, USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provided 42.1 million low-income Americans with benefits to purchase food at authorized food stores. The number of people receiving SNAP benefits has declined by 11.5 percent since the historical high of an average 47.6 million per month in fiscal 2013. In the 2016 fiscal year (the latest year for which demographic data are available), adults age 18-59 accounted for 44.1 percent of participants, children younger than age 5 accounted for 13.4 percent of participants, school-age children accounted for 30.7 percent of participants, and the elderly accounted for 11.8 percent of participants. The composition of SNAP participants, as well as the overall SNAP caseload, can be affected by both changing economic conditions and modifications to program requirements. The composition shifted after the 2007-09 recession, as more working-age adults became eligible for the program and applied for benefits. Working-age adults' share of the SNAP caseload increased from 42.1 percent in 2006 to 46.4 percent in 2013, and has declined each year since 2013. This chart is from ERS's data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

SNAP policy index captures trends in State policies for administering SNAP

Thursday, February 15, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the Nation’s largest food assistance program. For much of the program’s history, administration of SNAP was largely uniform across States. However, welfare reform legislation in 1996 and subsequent legislative and regulatory changes have allowed States increased flexibility to administer some components of the program. ERS researchers recently developed an index that reflects how accommodative, or encouraging, State policies are to enrolling individuals in SNAP. This SNAP policy index is composed of 10 State policies related to eligibility, ease of enrolling and participating, participation stigma, and outreach to attract new participants. The index ranges between 1 and 10, with a higher number indicating more accommodative policies are in place. For the Nation as a whole, the index grew steadily from 1997 to 2014, meaning that States tended to adopt policies encouraging enrollment. Between 1997 and 2000, policies that relaxed eligibility and reduced stigma played the largest roles in the rising index. After 2000, policies that made enrolling and remaining in the program easier played a larger role. This chart appears in the ERS report, "Using a Policy Index to Capture Trends and Differences in State Administration of USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program", released on February 5, 2018.

In 2016, 81 percent of SNAP benefits were redeemed in super stores and supermarkets

Friday, February 2, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides participants with electronic benefits to purchase food in authorized retail food stores. In fiscal 2016, over $66 billion in SNAP benefits were redeemed, accounting for about 10 percent of the Nation’s spending on food at home. As of September 2016, 260,115 stores were authorized to accept SNAP. Convenience stores accounted for the largest share of SNAP stores (45 percent), but less than 6 percent of all SNAP benefits were redeemed in these smaller stores. Conversely, large super stores, which sell a wide variety of food and nonfood items, and supermarkets together accounted for only 14 percent of SNAP stores, but 81 percent of national SNAP redemptions. Super stores and supermarkets generally have a wider variety of foods and lower prices than smaller stores. Because SNAP benefits are for a fixed dollar amount, participants have an incentive to stretch their benefits by seeking out the best values when choosing where to spend their benefits. This chart appears in the ERS report, Design Issues in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Looking Ahead by Looking Back, released on January 25, 2018.

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