Prosperity Watch (Issue 64, No. 1)

Aug. 2, 2016

The number of North Carolinians on SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) fell quickly in April compared to January, especially in the counties that reinstated the three-month time limit for childless, non-disabled adults. The data covers the first month in which 23 of the state’s 100 counties began cutting people off SNAP after re-imposing the three-month time limit in January.

The harsh federal three-month SNAP time limit applies to these adults who can’t find work, volunteer, or job training activities totaling 20 hours per week. The time limit would have returned for 23 counties in January regardless of state action due to an improving economy in those counties. The remaining 77 counties qualified for a year-long waiver but the Governor and legislature permanently banned state waivers after July 2016, regardless of the next economic downturn.

SNAP participation fell by 35,000 people, or 2.2 percent, from January to April, the largest drop between these particular months looking back an entire decade. Assistance dropped more sharply in counties that re-imposed the time limit. The number of people receiving food assistance declined by about twice as much in counties with the time limit (2.9 percent drop) compared to counties without it (1.5 percent drop), on average (see the chart below).

Of the state’s 100 counties, 91 experienced a drop in participation during this period, with the largest decline in Alexander County where there are 2.5 times more people looking for work than jobs available, according to the latest labor market data available. Of the counties that experienced increases in SNAP participation, are all eastern and mountain counties—with one exception—which are where most of the economically distressed counties are located. Hyde County saw the largest caseload increase—0.8 percent—during this period.

In April, SNAP caseloads stood at 1.57 million people, which is the lowest level since September 2013, when caseloads plummeted after an update to the NC FAST processing system caused a glitch that led to substantial delays in people getting food assistance. It is not clear at this point how much of the decline is due to childless adults losing their SNAP benefits because of the return of the time limit in the waiver counties. It is possible that other differences, such as the slowly improving but uneven economy, are contributing to some of the declines and differences among waived counties versus non-waived counties.