Leaving Money (and Food) on the Table

Findings

An analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Census 2000 data on food stamp use and program eligibility in 97 large metropolitan areas reveals that:

  • In 1999, 9.8 million individuals in 97 large metropolitan areas across the nation lived in households that received a combined $9.1 billion in food stamp benefits. Higher shares of the populations in the metropolitan Southern and Western United States received food stamps, as did those in urban "city-counties" such as St. Louis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

  • Only about one-half of all individuals in major metropolitan areas who were eligible for food stamps received benefits in 1999. Participation rates ranged widely across the nation, from a low of 21 percent in the Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon, NJ, metro area to a high of 94 percent in El Paso, TX. Midwestern metropolitan areas reported above-average participation rates, and some urban counties exhibited considerably higher or lower participation rates than their respective metro areas.

  • Across all 97 metropolitan areas, eligible households that did not claim food stamps left an estimated $4.9 billion on the table in 1999. Forgone benefits in the Chicago and Houston areas exceeded $200 million, while the New York and Los Angeles areas could each have reaped about half a billion dollars more in food stamp funding had all eligible households participated.

  • The number of individuals receiving food stamps in the 97 metropolitan areas rose by 1.4 million from 1999 to 2002, but estimates from the USDA indicate that the overall metropolitan participation rate has likely declined since then. Because of the economic downturn and changes in the Food Stamp Program that expanded eligibility for working families, the number of individuals eligible for food stamps has increased faster recently than enrollment in the program.

Billions of dollars in unclaimed food stamp benefits and millions of nonparticipating eligible families should focus local leaders' attention on opportunities to connect more eligible individuals to the program. These include emphasizing to federal officials the local importance of food stamps, integrating food stamp outreach into existing working-family campaigns, supporting state policies that streamline access to food stamps, and encouraging the USDA to monitor food stamp participation rates at the sub-state level.