Mathematica Policy Research is committed to rigorous research to support programs and policies designed to ensure a nutritious diet, food security, and healthy levels of physical activity for all Americans. To mark National Nutrition Month, Mathematica offers a two-part retrospective on some of the most important research about nutrition assistance programs that we have conducted over the past several decades. In this first installment, we look back on more than 40 years of microsimulations, which have informed critical policy decisions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Informing the SNAP policy debate
Mathematica has a long history of providing policymakers with information about how potential policy changes might impact SNAP and the program’s participants. In one of our early projects in the mid-1980s, we provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) with information about the potential effects of selected SNAP program changes on payment errors and the amount of money states would be liable to pay back to the federal government because of these errors.
Another important Mathematica study examined the time limits enacted by 1996 welfare reform legislation on SNAP recipients viewed as capable of working. The findings, which informed FNS and Congress about the impact of this change, showed that most people targeted by these changes did leave the program, but also that many lacked access to work activities or had limited ability to work because of medical or mental health issues, substance abuse, or homelessness. A case study in Illinois raised concerns about the continuing need of this population after finding that about one-third of “able-bodied adults without dependents” were in extreme poverty and experienced moderate or severe hunger two years after leaving the program.
During recent reauthorizations of the U.S. Farm Bill, Mathematica used microsimulation models to conduct analyses for both FNS and private foundations that estimated the effects of changes proposed to SNAP. For example, a Mathematica study funded by the PEW Research Center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to inform the 2013 reauthorization debate simulated the impact of eliminating state categorical eligibility policies. We estimated that 12 percent of 2013 SNAP participants would have become ineligible if the proposed legislation had passed, losing an average monthly SNAP benefit of $203. We estimated that other proposals, such as converting SNAP to a block grant, would substantially reduce either benefit levels or the number of participating households.
In 2015, Karen Cunnyngham, associate director, appeared before the House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Nutrition to demonstrate a SNAP visualization developed by Mathematica and share additional resources that policymakers could use to gain a deeper understanding of SNAP. Cunnyngham testified before the House Committee on Agriculture again in 2016 about using SNAP data and microsimulation models to analyze how state policy options affect the SNAP population. Today, as Congress begins debating the 2018 reauthorization of the U.S. Farm Bill and the future of SNAP, Mathematica is conducting new microsimulations for both FNS and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that examine the potential effects of the latest proposed changes.
Stay tuned for the final installment of our National Nutrition Month series, in which a Mathematica expert will discuss, via video, critical research on food access, including Mathematica’s evaluations of SNAP participants’ food spending and food security. Finally, a data visualization will illustrate the changing fat content of school lunches over several decades, based on updated nutrition standards that were informed by our work.