Making Ends Meet: An Examination of TANF and Former TANF Food Pantry Users in Virginia

Year: 2002

Research Center: Joint Center for Poverty Research, University of Chicago and Northwestern University

Investigator: Nichols-Casebolt, Ann

Institution: Virginia Commonwealth University

Project Contact:
Ann Nichols-Casebolt
Virginia Commonwealth University
School of Social Work
1001 W. Franklin Street
Richmond, VA 23284-2027


Since passage of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, questions have been asked about whether those who have stopped using Federal cash assistance and food stamps have achieved self-sufficiency, or whether they have instead come to rely on assistance from private organizations. Nichols-Casebolt conducted a series of statewide surveys of Virginia food pantry users from 1997 to 2001. She examined the characteristics of Virginia families with children who sought assistance in food pantries and described changes over time in their receipt of cash assistance and food stamps. She also collected information on the material well-being of food pantry users, including their food security status in 2001.

The study found that demographic characteristics of food pantry users changed little between 1997 and 2001. In contrast, the share of food pantry users receiving cash assistance or food stamps fell. About 42 percent of food pantry users were also receiving food stamps at the time of the 1997 survey, while about 30 percent of food pantry users were also receiving food stamps in 2001. The author also found that over 35 percent of food pantry users who had recently left the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) indicated that they had also stopped receiving food stamps within the last 6 months. After statistically controlling for a number of other factors that influence food stamp receipt, the author found that TANF leavers are significantly less likely than TANF recipients to receive food stamps. Food pantry users who are most likely to be at economic risk—including the unemployed, single parents, parents with young children, and those with low education levels—are most likely to receive food stamps.

The study also documented the material hardships of many households who seek services at food pantries. Over 80 percent of the families were food insecure and over 25 percent lost telephone service at some time in the past 6 months. About 15 percent had been recently forced to change their living arrangements. The author examined the factors associated with the food security status of food pantry users. The results indicate that higher household income is associated with greater food security. After household income and demographic characteristics are controlled for, the receipt of either cash assistance or food stamps has no statistically significant effect on the food security status of food pantry users.

The author concluded that private food assistance plays a strong role in meeting the food needs of some low-income families. She noted that the decrease in the Food Stamp Program (FSP) participation rate suggested that food pantries are promising locations for FSP outreach efforts. Given the strong positive relationship between household income and food security, the author suggests that policies that focus on employment and work supports are important elements to improve food security in this population.