Churn, churn, churn--for those on food stamps, there's a season

Churn, churn, churn--for those on food stamps, there's a season

One in seven Americans is currently on food stamps. But from moment to moment, that one person might not be the same. That’s because food stamps–more properly known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–go through something called “churn.” Food stamp churn is the up-and-down nature of how many people are on food stamps at any one time.

It’s partly just a natural process–someone loses a job, goes on food stamps, gets a new job, goes off. But a good portion of the churn is actually a bad thing. It’s not because people are getting poorer or richer. It’s because they’re getting lost in the system–accidentally disqualified, applications lost, food stamps cut off, etc. That means a huge hassle for people in the grocery store check-out line, when they can’t buy the milk, eggs and chicken they need to make dinner, and another hassle at the public assistance office.

I knew someone who went through this problem. Signing up for food stamps is no easy business. You have to have an iron will to make it through a government application process, and even then, applications seem to be routinely “lost” or “rejected” for no apparent reason. Getting approved is no guarantee you’ll stay approved, even if you need assistance. One woman I know told me a story about bringing her day-old baby home from the hospital only to find out her food stamps had been cut off because they lost her change of address paperwork.

Not only is this a pain in the patoot, but it’s costly too. Gregory Mills at the Urban Institute recently wrote about the strain of food stamp churn on state budgets.

“The prevailing policy concern focuses not only on benefit loss among needy clients but also on added administrative costs, as state and local workers spend countless hours to reopen cases when these clients reapply a few months later,” Mills wrote.

So what do food stamp rolls look like in Illinois? I took a look at data from the Food Action Research Center and gathered numbers on how many food stamp recipients our state has had in the past year. I’m going to give you both the table and the chart, since some of you might be interested in the data specifics:

As you can see, the main trend is that food stamp participation in Illinois is going up. Up, up, up. But between months, you can also see some churn, particularly between August and October. Even a change as little as 0.1 percent means around 1800 families who are affected. Perhaps this rise in participants would be even steeper if every month, families didn’t fall off the rolls, for whatever reason.

Other social programs deal with this phenomenon. Massachusetts has written about the consequences of people going on and off of state health insurance programs.

“A sizable number of people are unable to maintain their coverage over a period of time, despite remaining eligible for the program… The consequences for those who encounter even a temporary loss of their health insurance coverage are extensive, significant and often detrimental,” wrote Bob Seifert, lead author on a study from the  University of Massachusetts Center for Health Law and Economics.

Living without health care is certainly difficult. Living without food is even worse.

Photo credit: wonderlane

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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