A look at the eligibility-to-participation gap and possible causes

Highlights From the Participation Rates Data

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) just released new data regarding participation rates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) between fiscal years (FY) 2016–2018. Below are their key findings.

  • In an average month in FY 2018, SNAP served 82 percent of all eligible individuals.
  • SNAP participation rates are higher among households with the lowest incomes compared to all other households. For individuals eligible for the maximum SNAP allotment, nearly everyone participated. Conversely, those receiving the minimum benefit participated at a rate of only 26 percent in FY 2018.
  • While older people who are eligible for SNAP participate at a much lower rate than the overall rate, the data reflect some progress in recent years in connecting more older adults to SNAP benefits. Those belonging to the SNAP-eligible “elder” category participated at an increased rate of 4 percentage points between 2016 and 2018.

Of concern is the 18 percent gap between those who were eligible under federal rules in an average month in FY 2018 to receive SNAP versus those who actually participated in the program. While 36 million eligible individuals participated, another 8 million did not. Let’s explore a few of the many possible explanations for this SNAP gap.

Some groups saw more pronounced participation gaps and trends. 

The participation rates for noncitizens and citizen children living with noncitizen adults each saw decreases between FYs 2016–2018. This trend was likely associated with the previous administration’s interpretation of public charge rules and other policies that had a chilling effect among immigrant households.

The USDA-FNS report also revealed that in an average month in FY 2018, while nearly all of the eligible individuals with the lowest incomes participated in SNAP, only 26 percent of those receiving the minimum benefit participated. One possible explanation for this gap might be that the paperwork, interviews, and administrative overhead required to participate in the program were perceived to be too great compared to the meager benefits.

Additionally, applying for and accessing SNAP benefits is not always an easy or equitable process. Here are just some of the other possible reasons for why the participation-to-eligibility gap may exist.

  • Without knowledge of the eligibility criteria, eligible individuals may not even realize that they qualify for benefits.
  • Applications or interviews may not be conducted in the applicant’s native language, making the process more difficult.
  • Potential beneficiaries may lack the phone, internet, or vehicle access necessary for filling out an application, providing copies of identification, or completing interviews with benefits staff.
  • The trauma of systemic discrimination can foster a sense of distrust toward government among historically marginalized communities, deterring them from reaching out for government assistance.
  • Older individuals and those with disabilities may have particular barriers.

Closing the Gap

SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that all eligible individuals have a right to those benefits. Regardless of race, age, disability, income, gender, or location, all eligible individuals should have equal and equitable access to SNAP benefits. Narrowing the SNAP eligibility-to-participation gap should be a key priority for federal, state, and local official and community partners.