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Who Are the Millions Who Receive Nutrition Assistance?


Who Are the Millions Who Receive Nutrition Assistance?


Nutrition Assistance Varies by Family Type

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Older families are more likely to receive community-based nutrition assistance while younger families rely more on other government programs, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau brief.

Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the brief profiles the tens of millions of families receiving food assistance and how the source of assistance often varies by family type. 

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In 2015, about 21 million families participated in the SNAP program at some point in the year (14.8% of all families).

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These differences reflect the target groups and eligibility rules of each program as well as the economic circumstances of families who receive assistance.

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Who Uses What Programs

SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) is the largest anti-hunger program in the United States. It provides money for food to people with family incomes below certain thresholds. A number of other eligibility requirements vary by state and by type of family.

In 2015, about 21 million families participated in the SNAP program at some point in the year (14.8% of all families). Younger families (those with a reference person under age 35) were more likely to participate in SNAP than older families (those with a reference person age 65 years or older).

This is consistent with other Census Bureau data that show higher poverty rates for younger families than older families. 

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Two of the other major programs, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and free or and reduced-price school meals, are only available to families with children. As a result, their participants are almost exclusively families with younger reference persons.

WIC, for example, is limited to pregnant women, new mothers and families with children from birth to age 5.

Similarly, participation in free or reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs is restricted to families with children ages 5 to 18. It is interesting to note that some older families also participate in these programs, most likely households in which grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren.

These patterns reverse for the 5.5 million families who participate in community-based nutrition programs. For this subgroup of programs, participation rates are higher among older populations.

Community-based nutrition assistance includes money or vouchers to buy food, bags of groceries or packaged foods, as well as meals from shelters, soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels or other charitable organizations.  Funding for community-based assistance comes from a variety of governmental and non-governmental sources. 

The direct relationship between age and participation is most likely driven by the fact that the popular Meals on Wheels program is included in this category.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Nutrition Services Program reported that 2.4 million people either ate home-delivered meals or at meal sites in 2015. Meals on Wheels serves adults age 60 and older who are at risk of institutional care, whether they are low-income or not.   

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The combination of age and lack of mobility likely explains older adults’ reliance on community-based nutrition assistance.

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Daniel Perez-Lopez is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Program Participation and Income Transfers Branch.  


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This story was posted in: Population

Tags: Population
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