Jill Richardson's post on extremely low food stamp participation rates in San Diego got me wondering how well Iowa does in getting eligible people enrolled in this program.
Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I'd like to see 100 percent of people who qualify for food stamps get them, just for the sake of reducing hunger in our communities.
But let's leave ethical concerns aside for now. Economic researchers, most recently Moody's Economy.com, have calculated that expanding the food-stamp program produces more economic stimulus than any other kind of government spending, and much more than any form of tax cuts. Every additional dollar spent on food stamps translates into $1.73 circulating in the economy.
This page on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website contains links to many studies comparing the state participation rates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name for the food stamp program). All of the recent annual reports are pdf files you can download.
The report for 2004 put Iowa in 22nd place for food stamp participation and estimated that 61 percent of the 286,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them.
The report for 2005 ranked Iowa 24th and estimated that 66 percent of the 307,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them.
The report for 2006 ranked Iowa 20th and estimated that 71 percent of the 309,000 people eligible for food stamps were receiving them. Data for 2007 and 2008 are not yet available on the USDA site.
As you can see, Iowa is doing a little better at getting food stamps to the people who qualify for them, but we have a long way to go to match the states near the top. In the top three states, more than 90 percent of people eligible for food stamps are getting them. That figure is above 80 percent for the next five states.
Increasing Iowa's food stamp enrollment rate from 71 percent to 80 percent would translate to nearly 30,000 more people receiving food stamps in our state. If we could get food stamp participation above 90 percent, roughly 60,000 more Iowans would be receiving food stamps. Those people would consequently have more to spend on other goods and services. Many retailers would benefit as the money flowed through the economy.
I don't know exactly what needs to be done to further improve Iowa's food stamp participation rate. There's a lot of research on the USDA site on factors that affect enrollment. I would welcome comments or a diary from someone with expertise in this area about what Iowa's doing well already and what we need to do better.
Given the multiplier effect of food stamp benefits on economic activity, this program merits attention from policy-makers looking to stimulate the economy. Government spending on infrastructure projects is worthwhile (as long as we fix what we have first), but let's not ignore other efficient ways of sparking more economic activity.
To my conservative readers who start hyperventilating at the thought of more people receiving government assistance: don't think of it as extra food for families struggling to get by. Think of it as a fast way to save jobs in the retail sector--with a lot more bang for the buck than tax cuts.