“How Did the Great Recession Impact the Geography of Food Stamp Receipt?”

Tim Slack

“From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy suffered the longest and deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Now aptly referred to as the Great Recession, the catalyst for this 18-month contraction was the bursting of a housing bubble that had become a profit center for the U.S. economy in the earlier part of the decade. As housing prices plummeted, mortgage defaults and foreclosures soared, and a systemic crisis took hold in the financial sector due to staggering losses on mortgage-backed securities and related products. The crisis created severe economic hardship for many Americans, including high and long-term unemployment, increases in the ranks of discouraged and involuntary part-time workers, and the greatest number of people in poverty in over 50 years. Given the magnitude of the crisis, the federal government responded with a series of bailout and stimulus programs aimed at mitigating the damage wrought by the downturn, the scale of which were unprecedented in the post-Depression era (Grusky, Western, and Wimer, 2011).

As the toll of the Great Recession mounted, another consequence was record-high levels of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly the Food Stamp Program (known most commonly simply as “food stamps”), SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program and one of the longest-standing components of the U.S. social safety net. While SNAP participation was widespread in the year leading up to the recession, averaging roughly 26 million people a month in 2007 (one in 11 Americans), by 2011, in the wake of the downturn, about 45 million people were enrolled in the program on a monthly basis (one in seven Americans) (U.S. Congressional Budget Office, 2012).

While the lion’s share of research on SNAP participation has reasonably focused on individual/household-level characteristics at one end of the continuum and state-level considerations at the other, several recent studies have drawn attention to the middle-range influence of local place-based factors (Goetz, Rupasingha, and Zimmerman, 2004; and Slack and Myers, 2012 and 2014). Focusing on counties, these studies demonstrate that places with high SNAP receipt are typically not geographically isolated, but instead tend to be members of regional clusters characterized by similar levels of SNAP use. For example, persistently poor multicounty regions such as Central Appalachia, the Lower Mississippi Delta, and the Rio Grande Valley stand out for having especially high levels of SNAP receipt (Slack and Myers, 2012).

We also know that the impacts of the Great Recession were geographically uneven. Take, for instance, one of the Great Recession’s signature features, the collapse of the residential housing market. During the downturn nearly half the states in the country actually had their housing prices hold steady. But in five states, median home values fell more than 30%: Nevada (-49%), Florida (-38%), Arizona (-38%), California (-37%), and Michigan (-34%) (Taylor et al., 2011). The same five states were plagued by some of the highest unemployment rates during the recession, with Nevada again ranking at the top of the list (+9.8%) (Walden, 2012).”

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