Texans Are Missing Out on Food Stamp Benefits

Alan Berube and Matt Fellowes
Matt Fellowes Former Brookings Expert, CEO and Founder - United Income

June 17, 2005

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Texas more than $7 million for being one of the most accurate states in the country at determining food stamp benefits. Sounds good. But that check should have been for nearly $1 billion.

That’s how much Texas missed out on by enrolling less than half of the more than 3 million people in the state who are eligible for food stamps through the state’s Lone Star card. On this count, Texas wouldn’t win any awards.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the percentage of eligible Texans receiving food stamps ranks well below the national average of 54 percent—and places the state 41st overall among the 50 states.

So why are Texas’ food stamp administrators some of the best in the country at determining benefits, but one of the worst at actually enrolling eligible families to receive them?

Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer.

For starters, where you are living with a low income in Texas counts. According to our recent analysis of USDA data and the 2000 U.S. Census, El Paso, the McAllen area and San Antonio all had participation rates above the national average. In fact, El Paso and the McAllen area had the highest food stamp enrollment rates in the country.

But Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston all had some of the lowest rates. Houston and Dallas, for instance, sign up fewer than one out of every three people who is eligible to receive food stamps.

This means that some areas of Texas are doing a much better job than the rest of the country enrolling people for the benefits they’re entitled to receive, whereas other areas of Texas have some of the nation’s worst rates.

Another important factor that may affect participation rates is the extent of an area’s poverty. In Dallas and Houston, where less than 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, it’s likely more difficult to find eligible individuals than in the El Paso and McAllen areas, where about every fourth person lives below the poverty line.

Still, there’s no question that Texas’ food stamp administrators should be more focused on the billions of dollars they’re not claiming every year in benefits.

Food stamp spending supports local grocery stores, expands the spending power of participating households and can boost family nutrition, which can reduce demand for state and local health services.

There are also multiplier effects to take into account. Research suggests that more than $1.80 is created in economic activity for every $1 that is claimed in food stamp benefits. This means that leaders in Texas, and its many urban areas, are missing out on an extremely valuable opportunity to help both their low-income working families and economies get ahead.

How should they seize that opportunity?

State and local leaders have any number of strategies available. Food stamp outreach should be integrated into existing working-family campaigns in the states. The state also should promote policies that streamline access to food stamps. And leaders should encourage the USDA to start monitoring sub-state participation, so that areas where participation problems are severe, such as in Dallas and Houston, don’t go undetected.

But before any progress can be made, state food stamp administrators need to get their eye back on the ball by focusing on the billions of dollars in benefits that go unclaimed, rather than just the millions they now pursue.