03/10/2014 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

More Evidence That SNAP Caseloads Have Started Falling

A million fewer people received SNAP (formerly food stamps) last December than in December 2012, the Agriculture Department announced Friday -- the fourth straight month in which participation fell from the previous year.  This is just the latest sign that SNAP, which critics claim is out of control, has begun to shrink as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession.

SNAP caseloads grew in the recession for two main reasons.  More people qualified for the program (due to the weak economy) and a larger share of eligible people applied (due in part to state initiatives to reach more eligible households -- particularly working families and senior citizens -- by simplifying SNAP policies and procedures).

As our report explains, SNAP caseloads expanded rapidly when the recession hit, but growth slowed in 2011 and 2012 and has begun to decline (see graph).  This flattening of participation follows the pattern of previous recessions.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects that, as the economy improves, the number of participants will fall by 2 to 5 percent each year over the next decade.

SNAP spending, which doubled as a share of the economy (gross domestic product or GDP) in the wake of the Great Recession, has also begun to decline.  SNAP fell slightly as a share of GDP in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.  CBPP projects it will fall further in 2014 -- not only as a share of GDP but even in nominal (non-inflation-adjusted) terms -- largely because of last November's expiration of the temporary benefit increase in the 2009 Recovery Act.