The economic shock accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic raised fears of a material hardship crisis in the United States, with spikes in problems such as food insecurity and housing instability. These issues are particularly concerning for households with children, being associated with a higher risk of detrimental outcomes such as increased child problem behaviors and poorer academic performance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; “food stamps”) is one of the nation’s key countercyclical safety net programs, and its caseload expanded from 19 million to 23 million households from the onset of the pandemic to September, 2020 (USDA, 2021).
It is important to assess SNAP’s efficacy during the pandemic, a far different situation from a typical recession. Evaluation of SNAP, however, is challenged by selection effects. Those most at risk of food insecurity are also the most likely to enroll in the program. Once these interrelationships are accounted for research tends to show SNAP reduces the risk of food insecurity and even other hardships such as falling behind on housing expenses. Whether and how strongly these patterns held during the unique circumstances of the pandemic merits scrutiny.
This study therefore addresses two questions. First, was SNAP protective against food hardship in families with children during the COVID-19 pandemic? Second, did SNAP ease other forms of hardship? Answering these questions provides insight into the dynamics of hardship and evaluates the performance SNAP during this unprecedented period.
I use data from Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the Household Pulse Survey (“Pulse”), a survey conducted by the Census Bureau to gauge experiences of U.S. households during the pandemic. I restrict the sample to low-income households ($50,000 or less in earnings in the prior year) with children (n=62,530 over 24 weeks as of this proposal) and define indicator variables for perceived risk of food insufficiency, actual household food insufficiency in the past week, child food insufficiency in the past week, difficulty paying essential expenses, and housing insecurity.
I estimate recursive bivariate probit models jointly modeling SNAP participation and each hardship variable, with SNAP participation both a jointly modeled outcome and a predictor of hardship. Controls include demographics of the respondent, employment, recent income loss, household composition, state, and week of the survey. I then calculate estimated effects of SNAP participation on the probability of experiencing each hardship.
SNAP participation was associated with an 0.41 lower probability of anticipated food insufficiency, an 0.21 lower probability of actual household food insufficiency, an 0.32 lower probability of child food insufficiency, and an 0.16 lower probability of difficulty meeting other expenses. No significant relationship to housing insecurity was found.
Conclusions & Implications
SNAP was vital to avoiding a still-greater hardship crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. It reduced the incidence of food hardship and bolstered a household’s ability to meet essential expenses. Findings have implications for racial equity. Households of color were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its economic fallout, and in the Pulse data were also at greater risk of hardship.