Abstract The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is among the nation’s largest safety-net programs, helping low-income households afford food, improve nutrition, and support employment. As program expenditures continue to grow, assessing SNAP from the perspective of employment and health outcomes is crucial. We analyze administrative and survey data to document trends in employment and health outcomes for adult SNAP recipients from 1996 to 2019. We find the fastest-growing groups of the adult caseload suffer from low employment levels and poor health outcomes. These results suggest that program reforms should focus on not only reducing hunger but also improving employment and nutrition.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program) provides food benefits to 40 million Americans each month at a total cost of over $110 billion in 2022 (USDA 2023b). One of SNAP’s primary goals is to reduce hunger and malnutrition by helping low-income households afford food. However, the program’s purpose goes beyond simply providing resources for food. It also aims to help families escape poverty by encouraging proper nutrition and stable, gainful employment.
A growing body of research shows that SNAP’s design can work against these goals by discouraging employment and contributing to poor diet (Hoynes and Schanzenbach 2012; East 2018; Andreyeva et al. 2015; Mande and Flaherty 2023). Unlike other federal food assistance programs, SNAP has no nutritional standards, allowing participants to purchase any food or beverage product intended for consumption, except alcohol. As a result, data show that sizable portions of SNAP dollars purchase nonnutritious foods, such as sugary beverages and ultra-processed foods, which can lead to poor health (USDA 2016).
Additionally, SNAP’s work requirements have a limited scope, with the most stringent work requirements applying only to age 18–49 able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). Over the past several years, states have exploited exceptions in the law to waive these work requirements, resulting in many ABAWDs not subject to a work requirement at all. Moreover, research suggests that SNAP benefits can disincentivize work among some low-income families, reducing the prospects of upward mobility.
Although previous research has investigated SNAP’s health and employment effects, we know little about trends in employment and health outcomes for adult SNAP participants over time. To document trends in SNAP participants’ health and employment outcomes over the past two decades, we analyzed data from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Quality Control (QC) dataset to explore changes in the composition and employment levels of the SNAP adult caseload from 1996 to 2019 and health data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).
SNAP QC data compile demographic and economic information on a representative sample of SNAP households from all 50 states, collected to determine SNAP eligibility. The NHIS is a household survey conducted yearly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking respondents a variety of health- and employment-related questions, including whether anyone in the household receives SNAP. Both datasets are cross-sectional, meaning the results reflect the SNAP caseload at points in time, not necessarily the same individuals over time. For our analyses, we grouped SNAP adults by age and parent status, stemming from how SNAP policy is currently structured.1
Our results show that adult SNAP recipients have had especially poor health and employment levels over the past two decades. We found that the average age of adults receiving SNAP has risen substantially over time and that these adults were more likely than ever to be childless. Older and childless adults displayed the lowest employment levels of all recipients consistently across years. Additionally, we documented high rates of physical and mental health issues among all groups of SNAP adults, especially when compared to other groups of US adults. Making matters worse, these health and employment challenges are affecting a greater number of low-income Americans as SNAP caseloads have grown over time. Our findings raise serious concerns about the employment and health status of SNAP adults and the program’s potential contribution to these alarming statistics.
In the sections that follow, we first describe SNAP’s history, including the evolution of policies related to employment and nutrition. Next, we document SNAP’s caseload and expenditure growth since 1996, along with changes to the composition of the SNAP caseload by age and parent profiles. In the third section, we review employment levels for the SNAP caseload by age and parent profiles using SNAP QC data. In the fourth section, we review health outcomes using data from the NHIS, also according to age and parent profiles. We conclude with key takeaways for policymakers as they consider SNAP reforms.