Published: May 2023
Bibliographic reference: Alfonso Flores-Lagunes, Hugo B. Jales, Judith Liu, Norbert L. Wilson. Moving policies towards racial and ethnic equality: The case of the supplemental nutrition assistance program. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 04 May 2023. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajae.12402
We analyze the role played by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in alleviating or exacerbating inequality across racial and ethnic groups in food expenditures and in the resources needed to meet basic food needs (the “food resource gap”). To do this, we propose a simple framework that decomposes differences across groups in SNAP benefit transfer levels into three components: eligibility, participation, and generosity. This decomposition is then linked to differences in food expenditures and the food resource gap. Our results reveal that among the three components, differences in eligibility contribute the most to SNAP benefits differentials for Black and Hispanic households relative to White households. Given that SNAP is often a target of policy changes, we employ the framework to provide counterfactual analyses of how selected SNAP policy changes can impact group differences in benefits and, ultimately, disparities in food expenditures and the food resource gap. The proposed framework can be applied to analyze other safety net programs.
This paper analyzes the pathways through which SNAP can impact the existing heterogeneity in program benefits, food expenditures, and the food resource gap (the dollar amount needed to meet basic food needs) for different racial and ethnic groups. The latter two variables are directly related to food insecurity and thus provide information as to the role of SNAP in ameliorating or exacerbating the longstanding inequality in the rates of food insecurity across these groups. To do this, we propose a simple framework that sequentially decomposes differences in SNAP benefits across groups into three components (eligibility, participation, and generosity) and links the results to differences in food expenditures and food resource gaps through the MPSF from SNAP benefits.
Our results suggest that differences in eligibility alone can explain a substantial part of the differences in current SNAP benefits, food expenditures, and the food resource gap for both Black–White and Hispanic–White household differentials. Generosity of SNAP is associated with a smaller increase in relative benefits for minority households, whereas participation modestly increases the relative benefits for Black households but lowers the relative benefits for Hispanic households, compared to White households. Overall, SNAP increases the level of food expenditures of minority households more than that of White households, which reduces the differences in the food resource gaps by 25% between Black and White households, and by 18% between Hispanic and White households.
We consider three hypothetical policy scenarios that completely shut down each of the three components in turn. Because these illustrative scenarios represent substantial changes from the current program, the results of our decomposition need to be interpreted with care. Among these hypothesized policies, automatic enrollment appears as more effective in alleviating inequality in food resource gaps between Hispanic and White households, and a uniform benefit level of $638 per month is more effective in alleviating inequality between Black and White households. Subsequently, we consider three marginal changes to each of the components, which appear as more realistic policy changes and require less extrapolation of the decomposition framework. From these three hypothetical marginal changes, we find that a 20% increase in SNAP benefits would result in the highest amount of SNAP benefits and food expenditures for minority households relative to White households. However, these increases appear insufficient to alleviate the inequality in outcomes, as food expenditures increase by 8% for Black households and 9% for Hispanic Households relative to White households, whereas the food resource gap relative to White households decreases by 6% for Black households and 3% for Hispanic households. This illustrative counterfactual analysis, although just carving out the contours of the problem, provides useful insights into the impact of alternative SNAP changes in inequality across racial and ethnic groups, by taking into consideration the pathways through which each considered policy works.
Researchers can apply the decomposition framework in this paper to a broad range of government programs to learn about the impacts of policies (and their reforms) on the inequality in variables of interest across groups. One example is health care reform that expands health insurance coverage and increases provisions to uninsured and underinsured populations. Our framework can help understand how these provisions narrow existing health care disparities across racial and ethnic groups, and, by parsing out the key policy components, the analysis can help policymakers design more effective policies.