When talking about food stamps (or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it’s now called), many people imagine that it’s primarily an urban benefit—think Ronald Regan’s “welfare queen” living on the South Side of Chicago. That image still persists today: When talking about government nutrition assistance, news stories are often illustrated with images of single mothers of color or older retirees in large urban housing developments. Seldom do the suburbs—the land of cul-de-sacs, strip malls, and minivans—come into play in regards to SNAP.
But increasingly, the ’burbs are becoming the defining image of food stamps. The number of Americans living in suburbs who receive SNAP doubled between 2007 and 2011, and the majority recipients nationwide—55 percent—now live there, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data by the Brookings Institution.
“Many of the regions that saw the steepest increases in food stamp receipt were Sun Belt metro areas hit hardest by the collapse of the housing market and recession that followed,” writes Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. This includes cities like Modesto, CA, Tampa, FL, and Riverside, CA, “where the number of suburban households receiving SNAP benefits more than tripled, as well as regions like Cape Coral, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, where suburban SNAP receipt more than doubled.”
In 2007, the share of SNAP benefits was divided roughly in half between urban and suburban households. Just four years later, however, suburban households comprised 55 percent of all households receiving SNAP—a 100 percent increase over that time period. (The urban share increased by 69 percent over that period.)
In the wake of the housing bust and the subsequent Great Recession—economic calamities that caused real wages to fall across the board by 2.8 percent as global food prices continue to rise—almost 48 million Americans have received the nutrition benefit. As a result, the value of SNAP benefits have decreased by seven percent during that time, according to a recent report by the USDA.
Kneebone writes that SNAP has proved to be a stable tool in fighting food insecurity and poverty amid the ups and downs of economic cycles. She adds that the $40 billion suggested cut to SNAP would severely hinder the economic recovery in metropolitan areas and hurt working families.
“Now, the expected and proposed cuts to the SNAP program stand to weaken this anti-poverty tool,” she wrote, “with wide-reaching implications for the food security, economic stability, and health outcomes of millions of families still struggling with the aftereffects of the Great Recession.”