The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) aimed to provide temporary relief to families affected by the Great Recession of late 2007 to 2009, including a boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest food assistance program in the country. As a result of the ARRA, eligibility rules were relaxed and SNAP benefits per person rose by approximately 17 percent in April 2009. This study uses data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to examine whether these SNAP changes may have altered dietary intake of program recipients. Little is known about the impact of the SNAP benefit expansion on diet quality of recipients. Such information would be especially useful in light of studies linking SNAP participation to unhealthy weight outcomes, and related concerns about the adequacy of pre-ARRA benefit levels for a healthy diet.
Recent research has documented that the ARRA expansions in SNAP have improved food security and increased food expenditures among low-income families. However, it is unclear whether these changes in food security and food spending translate into improved diet quality. Prior studies, primarily cross-sectional, show that SNAP participation is consistently associated with higher food expenditure, but its association with diet quality or nutrient intake varies across studies and nutrients. These studies do not control for self-selection into the program.
The ARRA provides a unique experimental opportunity to examine dietary intake and food consumption patterns following an exogenous increase in SNAP benefits. Changes in the diet quality of SNAP participants before and after April 2009 could be compared to those of a control group of income-eligible nonparticipants using a standard difference-in-difference (D-D) model. However, ARRA may have induced changes in the composition of SNAP participants. For example, increased benefits and relaxed eligibility rules for some may induce post-ARRA participation among less food-needy people who may have been program eligible prior to the ARRA, but chose not to participate because the time and other costs of applying were greater than the expected benefits of participation. In addition, those who stayed out of the program even when the benefits were increased may also be better off than those nonparticipants prior to the ARRA. These composition changes make it difficult to estimate effects of the benefit increase, or even to gauge the direction of bias in estimated effects.
This study attempts to mitigate this problem by focusing on the impact of ARRA on SNAP eligibles rather than participants. Specifically, the study estimates D-D models that compare differences in pre-post ARRA diets for low-income respondents who are SNAP-eligible (income less than 150 percent of the Federal poverty threshold [FPL]) with those of low-income respondents with incomes just above the eligibility threshold. Since many SNAP-eligible households do not participate in SNAP, this approach will underestimate the effect of the ARRA on SNAP participants. Pre-post ARRA comparisons between SNAP-eligible and nearly-eligible respondents will incorporate changes due to both higher benefit levels and expanded participation in SNAP. Note that near-eligible respondents will not benefit from the SNAP changes in the ARRA.
Models are estimated using a sample of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey respondents with two days of dietary recall data recorded between October 2007 and December 2010, and household incomes within 250 percent of the FPL. Since youth in the sample have access to food from school meal programs, the sample is further restricted to those over 18 years of age. Models of dietary outcomes are based on gamma distributions which are known to accommodate a variety of skewed distribution shapes to obtain more powerful results. Quantile regressions are also estimated to minimize the effect of outliers and highlight ARRA-associated changes in the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles of the intake distribution.
To minimize the effect of compositional changes in SNAP participants, models are also estimated separately for those older than 18 years who have a high school or lower education level. Assuming that this sample faces a tighter food budget and is therefore more likely to enroll in SNAP at the pre-ARRA benefit levels than those with higher education, the results for this less-educated group of low-income individuals should more closely reflect the effect of higher SNAP benefits on dietary outcomes.
Results from the full sample suggest that there are no significant changes in dietary intake or overall diet quality associated with SNAP changes in the ARRA. For those over 18 years of age, models that control for daily caloric intake indicate that SNAP changes in the ARRA are associated with a significant increase in vitamin D consumption, but also an increase in carbonated and sweetened-beverage (CSB) calories, and a decrease in the overall diet quality as measured by the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). However, the latter two estimates fall short of standard levels of statistical significance.
On the other hand, quantile regression models for this sample indicate that the ARRA is associated with significant increases in fruit and vegetable consumption at the 75th percentile and statistically significant reductions in HEI scores for those who already consume a poor quality diet at the 25th percentile. This suggests that the SNAP changes due to ARRA may simply enable existing patterns of consumption rather than facilitate improvements in diet quality. Results for the less-educated sample indicate that the ARRA significantly increased both CSB calories and fruit and vegetable consumption in models with and without controls for total caloric intake. However, there are no significant effects on overall diet quality, consumption of saturated fats, sodium, fiber, or empty calories from solid fats, alcohol, and added sugars. Overall, the results suggest that increasing the SNAP allotment is not, by itself, sufficient to improve overall diet quality or macro- and micro-nutrient intake of recipients. Higher SNAP benefits may help to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, but also increase the consumption of CSBs that have little, if any, nutritional benefit, and may increase unhealthy weight outcomes.