Food Stamp Program and Consumption Choices

This paper is from a series of policy papers on obesity published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors examine whether the federal Food Stamp Program (FSP), the largest food program in the country, affects consumption patterns in families headed by single mothers with a high school education or less. One of the reasons for examining the FSP is that the families it was designed to serve—low-income Americans—are now experiencing some of the highest rates of obesity in the United States. Specifically, this study investigates whether changes to the FSP’s social policies have influenced food expenditures in low-income families; and how changes to incentives for participation in the FSP, such as simplified certification and welfare reform, affected food expenditures in low-income families. Study families were compared to controls who were not food stamp recipients. Data for this study were drawn from the Consumer Expenditure Surveys for 1994–2004.

The authors broke food expenditures into nine specific categories: food at home, food away from home, cereals and bakery products, meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, nonalcoholic beverages and alcoholic beverages, and miscellaneous expenses on food. Most of the difference in food expenditure between food stamp recipients and nonrecipients was attributed to expenditure on foods while away from home. Analyses suggest that expansions in the food stamp program, measured by increases in participation in the FSP, did not appear to have a significant effect on total expenditure on food for households in this study. There also was weak evidence that the caseload increase was associated with an increase in expenditure on food away from home in low-educated single mother families. Similarly, changes to policies of the FSP such as simplifying the certification process, did not seem to have an effect on total food expenditure. Therefore, this study supports findings of earlier analyses that FSP does not have any statistically significant effect on food consumption.