An Overview of US Food and Nutrition Programs

Hilary Hoynes (Berkley) and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (Northwestern) have a new NBER piece that provides a very useful overview of the four major food and nutrition programs in the U.S., including their histories, current statistics, potential benefits, and the current research on their effectiveness.  An ungated version of the piece is available here.

This chapter provides an overview of the patchwork of U.S. food and nutrition programs, with detailed discussions of SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program), WIC, and the school breakfast and lunch programs. Building on Currie’s (2003) review, we document the history and goals of the programs, and describe the current program rules. We also provide program statistics and how participation and costs have changed over time. The programs vary along how “in-kind” the benefits are, and we describe economic frameworks through which each can be analyzed. We then review the recent research on each program, focusing on studies that employ techniques that can isolate causal impacts. We conclude by highlighting gaps in current knowledge and promising areas for future research.

Oh SNAP! An Organizational Failure

As Congress attempts to work out a new farm bill, at the center of the debate between the House and Senate is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. SNAP has grown significantly over the past few years, rising from $37.6 billion in 2008 to $78.4 billion in 2012 according the USDA. Of the roughly $1 trillion expected to be spent over the next decade under the anticipated farm bill, about $800 billion is for nutritional assistance programs.

(One may wonder why food stamps and school lunch programs are part of the farm bill. They have been pretty much since World War II, when farming states found a national security reason (under-nourished draftees) to boost demand for excess agricultural production by channeling more food through elementary and secondary schools.  It also makes a nice urban-rural quid pro quo; legislators from urban areas with many more SNAP-eligible voters have incentive to support sending money to rural areas to support farmers, and vice-versa.)

Not surprisingly, the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to “rein in” SNAP spending by $4 billion over the next decade—or about 0.5%–while the Republican-controlled House is looking at a “catastrophic” cut of $20 billion—or less than 3%–over the same time. That’s 3% off a program that has more than doubled in the past five years. (You might sense the sarcasm here).

One of the reasons SNAP has grown so tremendously to begin with—in addition to the economic situation (it has still grown 10%+ the last two years)—is an organizational failure in the way SNAP is administered. Continue reading Oh SNAP! An Organizational Failure