UB’s Economists Integral Part of New Book on the Social Safety Net in the Great Recession

A national project led by the Jacob France Institute (JFI), conducted by teams of social scientists at public universities and non-profit research organizations from six states, supported by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has just had its final project report published into a book by the prestigious Upjohn Institute in the labor economics field.  This is the first study in America to use administrative microdata from both Unemployment Insurance (UI) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) programs in several states to look at how these two programs worked together during a period of severe economic and labor market crisis.   Dr. David Stevens, the former executive director of the JFI, is one the book editors.  Dr. Ting Zhang, Associate Professor of Economics and Associate Director of the JFI, Susan Christiansen, Associate Director, and Jing Li, a former Research Analyst of the JFI wrote the chapter on Maryland, with data supports from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulations and Maryland Department of Human Services, data management support from John Janak and Sang Truong, JFI database managers and administrative support from other JFI staff members.

Unemployment Insurance (UI) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) are essential threads in the social safety net for working Americans.  These programs were particularly important during and immediately after the Great Recession.  Many workers lost their jobs, collected UI benefits, and often also received SNAP benefits.  At the same time, many persons in low income households already receiving SNAP lost their jobs and applied for UI benefits.  The two programs were roughly the same scale during the recession with national program expenditures reaching nearly $80 billion for UI in 2009 and just over $76 billion for SNAP in 2013.  Both SNAP and UI responded quickly to soaring unemployment with the numbers of SNAP recipients rising from 20 to 50 million and the numbers of UI beneficiaries increasing from 10 to 20 million around the recession.

Many households received benefits from both SNAP and UI during this period, but little is known about the extent of program interaction.  Understanding how these programs worked together in the crisis is necessary for improving policies to address hardship when economic difficulties reemerge.  While the two programs have previously been studied separately, this is the first study to use administrative microdata from both SNAP and UI programs in several states to look at how these two programs worked together during a period of severe economic and labor market crisis.  This book is based on analyses of SNAP and UI program benefit receipt around the time of the Great Recession in six states–Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas.  These six states span the full range of labor market experience during the Great Recession and also present a diversity of policy contexts.  This book distills the evidence about how the UI and SNAP programs worked individually and how they overlapped and complemented each other.  Changes in the parameters of one program may have unintended impacts on the other program.  Therefore, the new findings about the recession and post-recession interactions of UI and SNAP participation presented in this book have immediate relevance for public policy formation and administration.

Evidence from the state studies shows that joint usage of SNAP and UI is significant in good economic times, and that joint usage dramatically increased during the Great Recession.  The rate of long-term joblessness increased, and even with substantial temporary extensions in the potential duration of UI benefits, many workers and households suffered food insecurity and turned to SNAP.  Additionally, low income working households already receiving SNAP often turned to UI following job loss.

In Maryland, the Great Recession was milder than in other states.  However, the state unemployment rate was around the national average during the recovery.  The Maryland SNAP caseload increased faster than the national average and was above the national average by 2015. This trend may reflect increased SNAP benefit amounts, relaxed eligibility conditions, and increased outreach efforts by the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

The Maryland SNAP and UI beneficiary populations differed in post benefit earning patterns.  Less than half of the 950,000 adult SNAP recipient households had income from employment after receiving benefits compared to over 90 percent for UI/EUC/EB households.  Nonetheless, more than one-quarter of individuals who received some UI benefits also received SNAP benefits, suggesting that they had either no job or a low wage job that allowed eligibility for SNAP.

Maryland households receiving both SNAP and UI were among the most disadvantaged.  They qualified for weekly UI benefit amounts that were so low that they could still qualify for SNAP.  Adults in such households were more likely to be single, younger, female, with children, have completed only a secondary or lower education level, have low earnings, and were more likely to be minority and/or Hispanic.  Among these households, average earnings were highest for the 31 to 45-year-old age group, but even for this group average earnings were still below the federal poverty level for a household of two.  On the other hand, those who received UI benefits before SNAP had higher average earnings levels and did not qualify for SNAP before exhausting their UI benefits.  Some of the main results from the Maryland analysis were:

  • Many UI benefit exhaustees drew SNAP benefits as a last resort.
  • UI, EB and EUC allowed for available job search time and the possibility of reemployment, while SNAP did not necessarily offer as much possibility.
  • Two years after starting SNAP benefits only about one-quarter of recipients reported earnings.
  • Two years after starting UI benefits about one-third were employed and another one-third were receiving SNAP.
  • The Maryland SNAP population increased after the recession and remains stubbornly high.


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