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The systemic effects of SNAP benefit cuts on Washtenaw County poverty alleviation institutions

Children in produce section of supermarketThe project: This case study of Washtenaw County examines the impact of the 2017 changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Michigan’s new work requirement and time limit for receiving SNAP benefits rolled out in January 2017 meant 3,346 people in Washtenaw County could potentially lose their food assistance. Washtenaw County has one of the lowest percentages of residents using SNAP benefits in the state, so the effects of the SNAP eligibility change likely would be felt even more acutely in other Michigan counties.

Reduced public assistance places more burden on civil society organizations to support people in poverty, and the study wanted to look at whether:

  • Food assistance agencies saw increased demand for emergency food assistance;
  • More people fell behind on rent and utilities and requiring more housing assistance because they have to spend more out-of-pocket money on food;
  • The local Department of Health and Human Services office saw an increased caseload as people tried to understand why their benefits were cut; and
  • Farmers markets that leveraged SNAP dollars through programs like Double Up Food Bucks saw a decrease in SNAP shoppers.

The process: The study analyzed data from food assistance agencies, housing organizations and farmers markets from 2012 through early summer of 2017 in order to assess the impact of SNAP changes in 2013, 2015, and 2017. To provide additional context, the study also included interviews with staff from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Washtenaw County office, housing assistance programs, food assistance institutions, and former SNAP recipients.

Results: Of 101 food assistance agencies surveyed, 1-in-6 said they saw an increase in clients who had recently lost their SNAP benefits.

Eight of the 15 food assistance agencies that participated in follow-up interviews said they saw an increase in requests to volunteer, which possibly was the result of people trying to use community service hours to meet the SNAP work requirements. However, six out of 13 people who had recently lost their SNAP benefits did not know volunteer service counted toward the work requirement, the study found.

A drop in total SNAP payments made to Washtenaw County residents in 2017 corresponded with a drop in SNAP spending and Double Up Food Bucks redeemed that year at Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti farmers markets, which shows the impact of SNAP benefits on the local economy.

Another notable finding was that 44% of civil society organizations that offered five or more services – like food assistance, transportation, and other necessities – saw an increase in clients after the 2017 SNAP changes went into effect. Principal investigator Lesli Hoey said that indicates people who are food insecure have multiple needs, and the study recommended promoting key agencies that offer wraparound services.

“As other research has found, most individuals who go on and off SNAP attempt to find work even when time limits are not in effect, suggesting that the time limit may not be necessary to encourage work,” states the study’s final report. “The management of time limit requirements, therefore, may be drawing human and financial resources away from other vital poverty alleviation services.”

More information: Rolling out the SNAP work requirements in Michigan: the Washtenaw County experience

Lesli Hoey, U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Sue Ann Savas, U-M School of Social Work
Andrew Jones, U-M School of Public Health
Sandra K. Danziger, U-M Ford School of Public Policy
Mary Jo Callan, Director, U-M Edward Ginsberg Center
Markell Miller, Food Gatherers
Kate Kraus, Fair Food Network