Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Local Program Outreach and Eligibility Services

By Mabli, James | Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Local Program Outreach and Eligibility Services


Mabli, James, Agricultural and Resource Economics Review


Program outreach activities are integral components of many social welfare programs. The activities are designed and promoted in an effort to ensure that the programs reach the populations they are intended to serve, either by informing households that they are eligible for the programs or by informing households that are aware of their eligibility about the services and benefits the programs offer. One such program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It is the largest federal food assistance program in the United States and aims to ensure that low-income households with limited resources have adequate access to food. Though participation in SNAP increased 176 percent in 13 years, from 17 million individuals in an average month in fiscal year 2000 to more than 47 million in fiscal year 2013, estimates are that one-quarter to one-third of eligible households do not participate in the program (Cunnyngham, Castner, and Sukasih 2013).

SNAP outreach activities target this group of "eligible nonparticipants" to attempt to increase the participation rate (the percentage of eligible households that participate in the program). The outreach activities are defined as "discretionary educational and informational efforts promoting the nutrition and other benefits of participating in the program which are directed to nonparticipating but potentially eligible persons."1 Examples of the activities include pre-certification efforts such as supporting a client-friendly environment in SNAP application centers and simplifying applications and/or the application process. The outreach policies typically are set by the state SNAP office and are implemented at the local SNAP agency level.

Policymakers face two important tasks related to program participation and outreach. The first is to identify the characteristics of individuals who participate in public food assistance programs such as SNAP and barriers to participation for those who are eligible but do not participate. This information can be used to most effectively reach different groups of nonparticipants and develop effective strategies for assisting nonparticipants in transitioning to the program. This assistance is particularly important for the most vulnerable populations; households in which annual income is below the federal poverty threshold are entitled under federal SNAP rules to a higher level of benefits than households with higher incomes. The second task is to evaluate the effects of the outreach activities on participation in SNAP. This evaluation aids administrators in determining best practices both for outreach activities and for allocation of limited state and local agency resources.

Identifying the characteristics of program participants has been a core component of SNAP's policy research for more than 20 years (Mabli et al. 2011b). The literature in terms of both academic journals and government reports focused on identifying factors associated with participation is extensive. However, less is known about the effects of program outreach efforts or about barriers to participation, in large part because data on these aspects of the program have not been available. While most nationally representative data sets provide information about the characteristics of SNAP participants and nonparticipants, they lack corresponding information from the local agencies that perform program outreach in the areas in which survey respondents live.

This study uses a recently collected data set to construct matched householdagency records and examine the effect of local program outreach efforts on SNAP participation. The survey data, and thus the analysis, are limited to one of the most vulnerable populations that participate in SNAP-households that receive food from emergency food pantries. The data come from the 2009 Hunger in America (HIA) survey, which is the largest nationally representative survey of emergency food program recipients available. …

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