September 2013

Recent trends in spending patterns of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants and other low-income Americans


Total expenditures. The three participation and eligibility groups exhibited different trends in total expenditures over the study period. (See figure 1.) Total expenditures by SNAP participants increased by $674 from 2004 to 2006, increased more sharply from 2006 to 2009, and decreased slightly from 2009 to 2010. The total increase was $2,052. By comparison, expenditures by eligible nonparticipants increased by $2,339 from 2004 to 2006, increased less sharply from 2006 to 2008, and decreased slightly from 2008 to 2010, for a total increase of $2,056. Higher income nonparticipants exhibited the smallest increase in expenditures over time—$1,514 from 2004 to 2010—with most of this increase occurring from 2004 to 2006. By 2010, total expenditures by SNAP participants exceeded expenditures by eligible nonparticipants by about $1,300; yet, total spending for both groups was markedly (about $10,000) lower than that for higher income nonparticipants.

Expenditures on food at home. SNAP participants’ spending on food at home decreased between 2004 and 2005 and then increased sharply between 2006 and 2010 (from about $4,000 to more than $4,500 per year). (See figure 2.) This dynamic differs from the change in spending on food at home by eligible nonparticipants and higher income nonparticipants; for both groups, expenditures in this category increased until 2008 and then decreased between 2008 and 2010. These diverging trends have resulted in SNAP participants having the highest annual spending on food at home in 2010 across the three groups. This finding does not simply reflect an increase in total expenditures, because, from 2007 to 2010, the share of total expenditures spent on food at home increased the most for SNAP participants (by close to 2 percentage points, with little change in the shares of the nonparticipant groups). In 2010, SNAP participants continued to maintain the highest expenditure share among the three groups, at about 18 percent. By comparison, the shares for eligible nonparticipants and higher income nonparticipants were 15 percent and about 13 percent, respectively.

Expenditures on food away from home. All three consumer groups had relatively flat profiles of spending on food away from home from 2004 to 2006, followed by sharp increases (between $400 and $650, depending on group) in 2007. (See figure 3.) Spending by SNAP participants and eligible nonparticipants then gradually declined through 2010. Higher income nonparticipants, however, exhibited a small decrease in spending from 2007 to 2008, and then a gradual increase beginning in 2008. Each year, SNAP participants spent the least on food away from home relative to the nonparticipant groups: about $260 and $698 less per year, on average, than did eligible nonparticipants and higher income nonparticipants, respectively. They also spent the smallest share of total expenditures on food away from home, a share that has been decreasing since 2007.

Housing expenditures. Over the study period, spending on housing increased for all three groups. The increase for SNAP participants was the smallest, at $1,026, compared with $1,452 for eligible nonparticipants and $1,178 for higher income nonparticipants. (See figure 4.) Each year, participants and eligible nonparticipants spent less on housing than did higher income nonparticipants; however, these households spent a greater share of total expenditures on housing.

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About the Author

James Mabli

James Mabli is Associate Director of Human Services Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rosalie Malsberger

Rosalie Malsberger is a graduate student in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.