​The incredible shrinking food stamp program

The food-stamp program has been criticized as suffering from a "binge" and as "unnecessary," but here's a new term to describe it: shrinking.

As a share of GDP, spending on the food-stamp program is on track to decline substantially in 2014 after stabilizing in 2012 and 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted in a report published last week. Already, the number of people taking food-stamps is contracting as enrollment in February declined to its lowest level in more than two years.

That turnaround comes after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more than doubled its spending between 2008 and 2013, thanks to millions of hard-hit Americans who signed up for the program during and after the financial crisis. With the economy improving, many are moving off the rolls. Recent cuts to the program are also reducing the per-person benefit.

"Forty-seven states have started to see declines. That suggests to me that it's likely more related to the economy than the other factors," said Dottie Rosenbaum, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and an author of the report. "The data shows that the program isn't growing out of control as some people have contended."

The recession, which officially ended in June 2009, took a toll on employment levels, which was one reason why SNAP caseloads rose to record levels, she added. The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 6.3 percent in April, down from its post-recession high of 10 percent in October 2009. Spending on the program was about 2 percent of the government's 2012 budget.

Of course, enrollment in the program still stands near peak numbers, with 46.2 million Americans receiving the food aid in February. At its high point in December 2012, about 47.8 million Americans were enrolled.

Even with the decline, roughly one out of every seven people in the U.S. is a food-stamp user. While some critics have portrayed beneficiaries as free-loading nogoodniks -- an image reinforced by the sushi-eating surfer Jason Greenslate -- SNAP saw its biggest caseload spikes in the states hardest-hit by the recession, such as Nevada and Florida.

But now that the economy is stabilizing, food-stamp enrollment is falling in dozens of states, with Georgia and Utah showing the sharpest declines from a year earlier, at -13 percent and -11 percent, respectively, the CBPP notes. Nationally, the number of participants should continue to fall at a rate of 2 to 4 percent annually over the next 10 years, the report adds.

Another reason may account for why some people are leaving SNAP: the expiration of the Recovery Act's temporary benefit increase last November, which cut payouts by about 7 percent per household. That's because research has shown that when the benefits are smaller, some people may "believe it's not worth applying," Rosenbaum noted.

Still, she added, that might prove to be only a small impact on participation.

  • Aimee Picchi

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