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Food Stamps and the Growing Suburban Safety Net

An important federal program that tends to fly under the radar received some unprecedented real estate this past weekend--an enormous spread on page A1 of Sunday’s New York Times.

Jason DeParle’s article, and some nifty interactive maps on the Times website, portray the recent rapid growth of the food stamp program, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or by its rather unfortunate acronym, SNAP. DeParle documents how, in the wake of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, successive administrations--from Clinton to Bush, and now Obama--have worked in a bipartisan fashion to erase the stigma that once haunted the program, and ensure that eligible families receive access to its benefits.

Because welfare reform transformed what was an individual entitlement into a block grant to states, cash welfare caseloads in many states have remained relatively flat despite the worst recession in generations. As a result, food stamps--which remain a federal entitlement--have become an even more important countercyclical tool for fighting poverty, and enrollment has expanded by about one-third since 2007. DeParle charts that rise over the past two years across a broad cross-section of U.S. communities, all of which are feeling the economic pain of rising foreclosures, mounting job losses, and declining family incomes.

Of particular note, the article discusses the significant increases in food stamp receipt occurring in many suburban communities, now that a majority of the nation’s metropolitan poor live outside central cities. Indeed, the counties in which food stamp receipt has doubled, and which have at least 5,000 recipients today, are largely suburbs--around Atlanta, Florida’s Gulf Coast, Austin, and Youngstown. As my colleagues Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr reported earlier this year, however, increases in food stamp enrollment in outer suburban counties have been somewhat lower than might be expected based on the rapid unemployment increases they have suffered. Lack of familiarity, distance to the nearest welfare office, stigma, or real eligibility differences may be to blame for under-enrollment in these farther-out areas.

All of which is to say, as food stamps become the de facto federal support system for millions of families during the next few years of elevated unemployment, plugging participation gaps in suburbia may be an important new frontier for fighting hunger and poverty in America.