Reports and Briefs
The Impact of Food Stamp Benefits on Family Homelessness in New York City (Revised)
All SNAP Dollars Are Not Equal
With more New Yorkers relying on SNAP, it is important to examine the relationship between income, benefit levels, and the price of food to determine whether SNAP can adequately assist families in meeting their nutritional needs. SNAP benefit dollars do not cover the same percentage of food expenses in New York City that they do in other urban areas, meaning that local low-income families in New York City receiving benefits struggle to secure decent nutrition. Families must spend more out of pocket on food, forcing some to choose between sufficient groceries and other expenses such as rent or utilities.
Although expenses such as rent and child care are factored into the determination of a family’s benefit amounts, regional variations in the price of food are not. For example, residents of New York City and San Francisco, where the same basket of items costs more than in other locales, do not receive the same degree of relief as residents of other large cities where prices are lower, such as San Antonio and Chicago (figure 3).[vi] Furthermore, while the price of food is roughly equivalent in New York City andpero San Francisco, the median SNAP recipient in San Francisco earns over $850 dollars more per month, leaving more income to compensate for the high cost of food.
This disadvantage is acute for the more than 10,000 homeless families in New York City.[vii] The more SNAP benefits a family receives, the less likely it is to become homeless, as using SNAP benefits frees up other income sources for necessities such as housing.[viii] More homeless adults exiting shelter in New York City (41%, compared to 33% nationwide) receive SNAP than any other form of cash assistance.[ix] However, as SNAP does not offset the high price of food in New York City (figure 3), some homeless families may experience greater difficulty exiting shelter. With both the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the New York City Department of Homeless Services focused on connecting homeless families to mainstream benefits, adjusting SNAP benefit amounts for regional variations in the cost of food can have a significant impact on a family’s ability to leave shelter and maintain self-sufficiency in permanent housing. With adult and family homelessness on the rise, simply adjusting SNAP to reflect food cost and need could help prevent hundreds, if not thousands, of families from becoming homeless.
[vi] Hypothetical food bills for a family of three were calculated using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Quarterly Food-at-home Price Database. Regional prices for food categories were multiplied to the quantities recommended in the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan and summed. Average SNAP benefits were calculated by dividing the total amount of benefit expenditures for a city by that city’s number of recipient households; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Quarterly Food-at-home Price Database, 2010; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thrifty Food Plan 2006; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates; New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Temporary and Disability Assistance Statistics, December 2010; California Department of Social Services, Food Stamp Program Participation and Benefit Issuance Report, August 2011; Maryland Department of Human Resources, Statistical Report 2010; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, SNAP Statistics November 2010; Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Monthly SNAP Food Benefit Cases and Recipients by County, December 2010; Illinois Department of Human Services, SNAP Data by Person—Year 2010.
[vii] New York City Department of Homeless Services, Daily Report, March 23, 2012.
[viii] Craig Gundersen, et al., “Homelessness and Food Insecurity,” Journal of Housing Economics 12 (2003): 250–72.
[ix] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2009 Exhibit 1 Continuum of Care (CoC) Application.