Estimating the Probabilities and Patterns of Food Stamp Use Across the Life Course

Year: 2002

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

Investigator: Rank, Mark R., and Thomas A. Hirschl

Institution: Washington University

Project Contact:
Mark R. Rank
Washington University
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
St. Louis, MO 63130
Phone: 314-935-5694


The Food Stamp Program (FSP) is the largest U.S. food assistance program. With some exceptions, the FSP is available to all households for which income and assets fall below certain levels. Information is already available on the extent to which households rely on the FSP during a given year. However, much less is known about how households use food stamps over the course of many years. Rank and Hirschl estimated the lifetime probabilities and patterns of food stamp use for the U.S. population, using a life table procedure. This approach provides empirical evidence on the range and scope of the FSP in the lives of Americans.

The authors used the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. individuals and their families. They merged 30 waves of data from 1968 to 1997 to build a series of life tables detailing the cumulative probabilities of participating in the FSP. They examine two periods of the life course—childhood (ages 1-20) and working-age adulthood (ages 20-65). Within each of these periods, they estimated the overall likelihood of food stamp use, the total and consecutive number of years that food stamps are accessed, and the effects that race, education, gender, and marital status have upon the likelihood of using the FSP.

The results indicate that food stamp use is quite common during both childhood and working-age adulthood: 49 percent of American children receive food stamps at some point by the time they reach age 20, and 51 percent of American adults participate in the FSP sometime between the ages of 20 and 65. Furthermore, once a household uses food stamps, it is quite likely to use the program again. Two-thirds of children who receive food stamps will do so in at least one additional year, while three-quarters of adults who use the program will do so more than once.

The results further indicate that food stamp use across the life course tends to occur over relatively short periods of time. For example, while half of all children receive food stamps some time before age 20, only 1 in 10 will do so in 5 consecutive years. These findings are consistent with earlier work examining the life course patterns of poverty, as well as the bulk of research examining the dynamics of poverty and welfare use. Although some households use food stamps for long periods of time, most food stamp users rely on the FSP to provide short-term assistance.

In this study, race, education, and marital status profoundly affect the probability that a person will use food stamps during his or her lifetime. Black Americans, people who have not graduated from high school, and children residing in nonmarried households have a high probability of using food stamps over the course of their lives. For example, 90 percent of Black children use food stamps at some point during their childhood compared with 37 percent of White children.

Study results indicate that a wide segment of the American population uses FSP some time during their lives. However, because different households participate in different years, more households participate at some point over a period of several years than participate in any 1 year. While roughly half of American children and half of working-age adults participate in at least 1 year, most FSP participants use the program for short-term assistance.