Case Study: Providing Definitive Answers on Hunger and Food Insecurity

Largest and Most Rigorous Study to Date Supports Evidence-Based Decisions

SNAP was also linked to a decrease in the odds of children experiencing severe food insecurity . . . .

- Reuters
Project Facts
  • The study was the largest survey of food security and food spending among SNAP participants to date.
  • The study team used comprehensive survey data collected in 2012 on the characteristics and circumstances of SNAP participants from almost 10,000 households in a nationally representative sample of 30 states.
  • Researchers used two different methods, a cross-sectional analysis and a longitudinal comparison, to offer the most definitive evidence to date of the positive effects of the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program.
  • The results of this more comprehensive approach can inform the policy discussion on program elements such as benefit size and promote evidence-based policymaking.
The Issue
Policymakers and other experts have long hypothesized that participation in the SNAP is associated with improved food security, but old data, small samples, and inappropriate comparison groups have made definitive estimates of SNAP’s effect on food security an elusive goal. Mathematica’s nutrition experts conducted the SNAPFS survey contributing definitive findings on the value of this often controversial program to some of the most vulnerable of our nation’s hungry. As the largest, most rigorous survey of food security and food spending among SNAP participants to date, the study helps support evidence-based decision making on nutrition policy by offering the most definitive estimates of the program’s effects.


The Approach

Mathematica’s study team used comprehensive survey data collected in 2012 on the characteristics and circumstances of SNAP participants from almost 10,000 households in a nationally representative sample of 30 states. Findings related to changes in food security are based on a longitudinal comparison of food security for 3,275 households initially surveyed at program entry. With methods that had never been used before, Mathematica’s nutrition experts obtained information on food security and circumstances for a group of newly entering households (certified within the prior two weeks) and compared it to information from a group of participants who had been in the program for the previous six to seven months. They also compared information from the newly entered households to those same households six to seven months later.

The Impacts

Mathematica’s study yielded significant and definitive findings on the effects of a program whose value has often been the object of speculation and debate. Findings offer evidence and guidance to policymakers and suggest they can help reduce food insecurity by promoting policies that help SNAP households maintain their SNAP benefits. Key findings include:

  • SNAP is associated with improved household food security.
  • SNAP is associated with improved child food security. 
  • SNAP is associated with improved food security for households with a variety of characteristics and circumstances. 
  • Benefit size matters. 
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This case study is for informational purposes only. Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, provides a full range of research and data collection services, including program evaluation and policy research, survey design  and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data management, to improve public well-being. Its clients include federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago, Ill.; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., has conducted some of the most important studies of education, disability, health care, family support, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs.

About the Project

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, provides nutrition assistance benefits to low-income individuals and families in an effort to reduce hunger and improve the health and well-being of low-income people nationwide. SNAP targets benefits to the neediest households; poorer households receive greater SNAP benefits than households with more income.To counter rising food prices and provide SNAP participants with enough resources to purchase food, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), enacted in February 2009, raised the maximum SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent, effective April 2009.

SNAP has long been one of the largest and most important nutrition assistance programs for low-income households. After the Great Recession, its significance has grown even larger with SNAP participation reaching record-high levels.

Policymakers, advocates, and those administering SNAP have long hypothesized that SNAP reduces food insecurity, which is a measure of whether a household experiences food access limitations due to lack of money or other resources.

Estimating the effect of SNAP on food insecurity using household survey data has been challenging, however, because households that participate in SNAP can differ in systematic ways from households that do not.    

Mathematica Policy Research conducted the SNAP Food Security (SNAPFS) survey for FNS between October 2011 and September 2012, to assess the effect of SNAP participation on food security and food spending in the post-ARRA environment of higher SNAP allotments.