Exploring the Structural Determinants of Food Stamp Program Participation in the South: Does Place Matter?

Year: 2009

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Slack, Tim, and Candice A. Myers

Institution: Louisiana State University

Project Contact:
Tim Slack
Department of Sociology
Louisiana State University
126 Stubbs Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Phone: 225-578-1116


Geographic space is increasingly being recognized as a key dimension of social inequality. Analysts concerned with spatial inequality have called for special attention to issues of comparative advantage (and disadvantage) across space as well as to the consideration of the subnational scale. Previous research has clearly demonstrated enduring relationships between subnational geographic location and economic hardship. A prime example of this relationship is the high and persistent poverty that characterizes the U.S. South—particularly in areas such as the Black Belt, Central Appalachia, Mid-South Delta, and Texas Borderland—compared with other regions of the country.

The Food Stamp Program (FSP), now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is the Nation’s largest food assistance program and a critical component of the social safety net. As such, the FSP plays a key role in addressing food assistance and nutrition issues faced by vulnerable populations, especially in the U.S. South. To date, the bulk of research on FSP dynamics has either focused on individual or household-level data drawn from large national panel surveys or on State-level data. This study extends prior research on food assistance in the U.S. South by exploring the relationship between county-level FSP participation and the local social structure. The research design is comparative in focus, examining how the structural determinants of FSP participation differ between the South and non-South and between high-poverty areas—the Black Belt, Central Appalachia, Mid-South Delta, and Texas Borderland—and other regions of the country.

The overarching aim of this study was to assess how the prevalence of FSP participation varies across space and establishes how other place-based (that is, county-level) characteristics influence existing differences. Accordingly, three specific research questions are examined: (1) Does the prevalence of FSP participation differ between the South and non-South? (2) Does the prevalence of FSP participation differ between high-poverty areas and other regions of the country? (3) Do the aggregate mechanisms related to FSP participation differ between the regions of interest?

The study drew on data from USDA and the U.S. Census Bureau. Counties were the units of analysis. In all, the study area included 2,561 counties in 34 States. The study assessed the influence of 20 independent variables that tap five dimensions of place-based characteristics in relation to FSP participation. The five dimensions of independent variables included county-level labor market conditions, population structure, human capital, residential context and inequality, and expenditures on cash assistance programs. The analysis was carried out by using both descriptive statistics and Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression. The regression models used a lagged panel design, in which independent variables were measured at an earlier point in time compared with the dependent variable. The independent variables represented county-level measures circa 2000, while the dependent variable measured county-level FSP participation circa 2005. Spatial effects were included in the models, given significant regional clustering of high and low FSP participation. In addition, State fixed effects were controlled due to differences in State approaches to FSP administration specifically and to addressing poverty and inequality more generally.

In short, this study shows that geographic space and place matter. The South, particularly its high-poverty areas, is home to especially high regional concentrations of FSP participation. Even when considering a full range of additional predictors suggested by the literature, the regional clustering of high and low FSP participation rates continues to be a significant consideration. Further, this study shows that the structural determinants of FSP participation differ between the South and non-South and between high-poverty areas and the rest of the country in significant ways.

The main implication of this research is that spatial variation in FSP participation is not subject to a nationally uniform set of aggregate determinants. Rather, region-specific considerations are warranted. We hope that the information presented in this study will prove useful to policymakers and practitioners by helping to identify communities that are likely to have special food assistance needs and by helping to anticipate how local social change may influence such needs in the future.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.