There’s something people think they know about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP.
It’s the idea that people who use what we used to call food stamps spend their once monthly benefits on groceries almost immediately after they get them. When you look at averages, that’s true, and for some it can mean some lean and hungry days at the end of the month before the next round of SNAP benefits.
In a new study published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, University of Georgia economist Jeffrey Dorfman takes a second look at that spending pattern. What he found paints a different picture which in turn suggests a simple adjustment to the SNAP program.
Dorfman looked at 2012 survey data gathered by the US Department of Agriculture on exactly how people spend their grocery money. When he dug into the subset of Americans who receive SNAP, the new pattern emerged.
“What we found was that only about a third of the people are spending their money very rapidly as soon as they get their SNAP benefits,” Dorfman said. “And about two thirds of the SNAP recipient households actually spend their money quite evenly throughout the month just like a personal finance expert would tell them to.”
The rapid spenders distort the image of how people spend their benefits. Dorfman said that distortion means the idea that all SNAP recipients should have to go through financial education programs would be a waste of money.
Instead, Dorfman suggests giving people the option to get their benefit in a series of smaller amounts throughout the month rather in a single payment.
“Maybe that would help them smooth out their food spending and reduce food insecurity,” Dorfman said. He said that would be cheaper than finance classes, too.
“That would essentially cost us some number really close to zero,” he said.