Food Stamp and WIC Take-Up and the Relationship between Take-Up and TANF Recidivism Among Illinois TANF Leavers: Understanding the Food Stamp Program Participation Decisions of the Working Poor

Year: 2004

Research Center: The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Investigator: Ready, Mairead, Sandra Lyons, Meejung Chin, Duck-Hye Yang, and Robert M. Goerge

Institution: Chapin Hall Center for Children, the University of Chicago

Project Contact:
Mairead Ready
Chapin Hall Center for Children
University of Chicago
1313 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone: 773-256-5174


Food assistance programs are an integral component of the public assistance safety net for the working poor, but not all families use these programs when eligible. A body of research indicates that nonparticipation in both the Food Stamp Program (FSP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is substantial. Less is known, however, about the interaction of FSP and WIC participation, and the relationship between multiple program participation and the self-sufficiency pathways of families.

This paper begins to fill that gap by focusing on a group of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) leavers with children under age 5 (ages 0-4)—a group that includes many persons eligible for both FSP and WIC at TANF exit. The paper uses linked individual-level longitudinal administrative data from the Illinois Integrated Database (IDB) to examine how participation in one of these programs is correlated with the decision to participate in the other, and to explore how participation is correlated with TANF recidivism. A series of new TANF entry cohorts is followed from the time of entry between 1995 and 1997 over time through December 2001. For those who exit TANF, the Unemployment Insurance (UI) wage records are used to estimate income eligibility for the FSP (130 percent of Federal poverty level) and WIC (185 percent of Federal poverty level). Using FSP and WIC administrative data records, the research distinguishes between those who are income eligible and take up services (program participants) from those who are eligible but do not take up services (nonparticipants). TANF records are then examined to determine how TANF recidivism varies across these groups.

Two broad conclusions emerge. The first conclusion is that the primary predictors of FSP participation by eligible people—that is, characteristics associated with poverty—do not hold for WIC program participation. Greater FSP take-up is associated with being unmarried, having a long history of TANF receipt, having poor work histories, and lack of a high school diploma. These results mirror those found in the FSP literature and offer considerable support for the simple model that those who stand to benefit the most choose to participate. By contrast, WIC program take-up is not clearly related to income alone. WIC also considers nutritional risk, with the value of the benefit package based on recipient characteristics, including pregnant woman, infant, and eligible children. If anything, the more economically advantaged use the WIC program more. This may reflect the fact that in Illinois families with income even above 185 percent of poverty may be eligible for Medicaid and thus WIC.

Second, the relationship between food assistance participation and TANF recidivism also differs significantly. FSP participation is correlated with more rapid return to TANF, whereas the effects of WIC take-up are smaller. And, for those who delay WIC participation, there is a reduction in the rate of return to TANF.

This work is informative for several reasons. First, it furthers understanding of the distributional consequences of FSP and WIC for individuals in families with earnings in Illinois. The results for FSP show that it is disproportionately those who are better off by any of several measures who choose not to participate. Second, the study begins to to fill an important research gap on the role of food assistance programs in welfare trajectories of families with very young children. Given time limits on welfare receipt, it is critical for those exiting TANF to avoid rapid recidivism—the return to the welfare rolls after a short-term spell of employment.