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.