Food stamp participation among adult-only households.

Author:Ribar, David C.
  1. Introduction

    Recent legislative and administrative changes in the Food Stamp Program have focused new attention on the participation of adult-only households. (1) The biggest legislative changes were the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, which limited a portion of the adult-only caseload--able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to three months of assistance in any three-year period unless they fulfilled specified work requirements, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which suspended those requirements. States have also altered their administrative policies, such as the frequency with which they required households to recertify their eligibility for benefits. Several states also undertook outreach efforts and streamlined their application procedures for vulnerable populations, such as the disabled and the elderly. The goal of these changes was to promote self-sufficiency among people who could work, while reducing barriers to participation among those who could not.

    Food stamp participation among adult-only households has not been extensively studied, perhaps because the people in these households make up a small share of the food stamp caseload. Barrett (2006) estimates that only 23% of food stamp recipients in 2005 lived in adult-only households and that fewer than 4% of recipients were ABAWDs. Adult-only households also tend to experience better economic circumstances than other households. The poverty rate in 2005 was 5% for families without children but 14% for those with children. (2) Nord, Andrews, and Carlson (2006) estimated that 92% of adult-only households were food secure compared to 84% of households with children.

    The relevant food stamp policies can also be difficult to analyze. The implementation of many policies and the administration of the program are left to the states, leading to considerable variation in the administrative landscape (Bartlett et al. 2004). Information on administrative procedures is hard to obtain and categorize, and when policies can be measured, they often lack useful, independent variation. For example, a binary indicator for the statewide adoption of a policy cannot be distinguished from general controls for time effects for that state.

    Despite their modest representation in the food stamp caseload and the challenges of investigating the relevant policies, adult-only households are an important population to study. First, although the adult-only households as a whole are better off than other households, adult-only households with low incomes, especially poor, disabled, and elderly households, are extremely vulnerable. In addition, eligible households in these groups have much lower program take-up rates than other groups. Wolkwitz (2007) estimated that food stamp participation rates in 2005 among households with and without children were 81% and 39%, respectively. The disadvantages faced by ABAWDs are sometimes overlooked. Bell and Gallagher (2001) have found that many low-income ABAWDs lack job skills or report other care-giving responsibilities; at the same time, ABAWDs can draw on few safety-net supports other than food stamps. Thus, for many ABAWDs, food stamps represent the last strand in the social safety net.

    Second, the policies directed toward adult-only households may have been quite consequential. Czajka et al. (2001) estimated that nearly a million ABAWDs were dropped from the food stamp caseload in the first three years following the imposition of time limits. Two unanswered empirical questions are (i) whether policy changes led to these declines and (ii) whether people who left the program were able to find work.

    Third, policies regarding adult-only households have been areas of both concern and discretion among the states. The concerns have centered on the administrative burden of tracking work effort and countable months under the time limits (Czajka et al. 2001), providing work supports, and monitoring the effectiveness of those supports (U.S. General Accounting Office 2003). With respect to policy discretion, states have been able to obtain waivers from the work requirements for geographic areas that lack jobs and to exempt parts of their ABAWD caseloads. Most states used this discretion in at least some areas, and at least 10 managed to obtain blanket waivers for all of their residents. The ARRA suspended time limits throughout the country from April 2009 until September 2010.

    In this article we examine patterns of exit from the Food Stamp Program among adult-only households from 1996 to 2005, applying event-history methods to administrative records from South Carolina. We consider three groups of adult-only households: (i) households with nonelderly, nondisabled members, (ii) households with nonelderly, disabled members, and (iii) households consisting entirely of elderly members. We are especially interested in how work rules for ABAWDs and changes in the state's recertification policies contributed to changes in exit behavior for these groups. We also analyze patterns of covered employment immediately following households' food stamp spells to gain insights about their economic well-being.

    The administrative records from South Carolina's case management system are a large and precise data source that is representative of all households in the state that began a spell of food stamp receipt after the enactment of the PRWORA. The records indicate the exact dates when spells began and ended and are not subject to the problems of faulty recall, underreporting, and nonresponse that characterize survey data. Such detailed information is critical when investigating ABAWD time limits and recertification intervals, which should affect exits at particular points in a spell.

    Although we consider only a single state, the state's policies applied to identifiable groups of people in different ways, which enables us to identify effects. Consider the waivers and exemptions from the ABAWD time limits. South Carolina applied most of its waivers on a county-by-county basis, with the set of counties changing over time. In addition, because the time limits applied only to people under age 50, it is possible to use households in which all of the members were older than this as pseudo-controls to see if other features of the exempt counties were associated with changes in participation.

    South Carolina also has a measurable set of recertification policies. Until October 2002, the state required food stamp recipients with variable incomes to recertify their eligibility every three months and recipients with fixed incomes to recertify every 12 months. In October 2002, the state extended the interval for households with variable incomes to six months, and in February 2005, it decreased the interval for households with fixed incomes, also to six months. Because recertification dates are tied to when a case begins, they can be distinguished from other calendar effects. Ribar, Edelhoch, and Liu (2008) showed that the longer recertification intervals in South Carolina enacted in 2002 contributed to caseload growth among households with children; in the present study, we investigate these relationships for adult-only households.

    Our analysis indicates that time limits and recertification frequency each contribute to the length of food stamp spells. Adults who were potentially subject to the ABAWD time limit were more likely to leave food stamps in the first few months of their spells than adults who were not subject to the limit. Also, adults were more likely to leave the program in months when they faced recertifications. The timing of people's exits lines up extraordinarily well with when the policies should have had their effects, and the associations are robust to alternative comparisons. We further find that the time limit was associated with exits with and without earnings, suggesting that this policy increased self-sufficiency for some households but left others without support.

  2. The Food Stamp Program in South Carolina

    The Food Stamp Program is a federal-state partnership that is intended to help low-income households obtain more nutritious diets by increasing their food purchasing power. The federal government pays the full cost of benefits; the federal and state governments split the cost of administration, and the state governments administer the program. In South Carolina, the administering agency is the state's Department of Social Services. Although eligibility is necessarily limited by income, assets, and other rules, South Carolina explicitly tries to reach as many eligible households as possible and to maintain participation in the program for as long as eligibility lasts. At the same time, the state has emphasized work to those who are able.

    As mentioned, the PRWORA toughened employment and training (E&T) requirements for ABAWDs. Prior to the enactment of the PRWORA, South Carolina required most nonelderly, nondisabled adults receiving food stamps to register for work, participate in job search and other E&T activities, and accept reasonable employment if it was offered. Recipients who did not comply could be sanctioned with a temporary loss of benefits. The PRWORA increased the amount of time that ABAWDs had to devote to work or other work activities to 80 hours per month. It also imposed a new time limit--three months of food stamps in any three-year period--for ABAWDs who failed to comply.

    The PRWORA gave states the discretion to waive the time limits in areas with weak employment conditions. South Carolina quickly exercised this option, waiving the limits in 24 counties. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 further allowed states to exempt up to 15% of their ABAWD cases from time limits, and the state subsequently received exemptions for several counties under this rule. Although South Carolina waived and exempted ABAWDs from the time limits, it...

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