September 2013

Recent trends in spending patterns of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants and other low-income Americans


The purpose of first-quarter data collection is to obtain demographic information and an inventory of household goods. Some first-quarter data on expenses are also collected, but these data are not included in the analysis files. The second through fifth quarterly interviews collect the expenditure information. In addition, the second and fifth surveys collect information on annual income, employment, and credit liabilities. The income amount includes the value of SNAP benefits received. The fifth, and final, survey also collects information on asset balances, changes to asset balances in the previous 12 months, and finance charges on credit liabilities.


All analyses are conducted for consumer units. The CE defines a consumer unit as (1) occupants related by blood, marriage, adoption, or some other legal arrangement; (2) a single person living alone or sharing a household with others, but who is financially independent; or (3) two or more persons living together who share responsibility for at least two out of three major types of expenses—food, housing, and other expenses. Students living in university-sponsored housing also are included in the sample as separate consumer units.

The CE describes consumer units’ spending on a diverse set of goods and services. To minimize the bias associated with respondents recalling expenditures over longer periods, the expenditure information is collected on a quarterly basis. Other household characteristics, such as income and SNAP participation, are available as 12-month measures.

The CE data include information about the total amount of SNAP benefits received by consumer-unit members in the previous 12 months, indicating which consumer units are receiving benefits. The data analysis points to a range of 6.5 million to 11.3 million consumer units who participated in the program during the 2004–2010 period. As shown in table 1, the annual SNAP receipt in CE data is, on average, 62 percent lower than the monthly receipt identified in official administrative counts.4

Table 1. Number of SNAP participants, by data source, 2004–2010
YearConsumer Expenditure Survey,
annual number of consumer units in calendar year
(in thousands)
SNAP Quality Control data,
average monthly number of SNAP units
(in thousands)















Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Interview Survey, 2004–2010, calendar year totals; U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP Quality Control sample data, fiscal years 2004–2010.

The underreporting of SNAP benefits in the CE data suggests that a nontrivial number of SNAP participants are categorized as nonparticipants in the analysis. As a result, the investigation may identify fewer spending differences between SNAP participants and eligible nonparticipants than it would find if SNAP participation were not as underreported. Therefore, all findings should be interpreted with this in mind.

This article focuses on differences in spending patterns among SNAP participants and other low-income consumer units. Two consumer groups in the latter category are defined for comparison purposes: eligible nonparticipants and higher income nonparticipants. Eligible nonparticipants are consumer units whose 12-month income is either at or under 130 percent of poverty (the federal gross income limit for SNAP eligibility), but who are not identified as SNAP participants. The CE data do not contain sufficient information to determine if consumer units would pass an asset test that is part of the SNAP eligibility determination. Nor does the analysis account for whether consumer units need to pass a net income test, which reflects income deductions for medical, shelter, dependent care, and earnings expenses. The analysis also does not attempt to account for higher income units who could be eligible for the program through categorical eligibility rules.5 Higher income nonparticipants—the second comparison group—are identified as consumer units who do not participate in SNAP and whose income is greater than 130 percent of poverty but less than 300 percent of poverty.


4 Annual measures indicate the number of consumer units who participated in SNAP at some point during the year. Average monthly measures indicate the number of units participating in a month, averaged over the year. The annual measures are larger than the average monthly measures because some individuals who participated during the year (and who were thus reflected in the annual count) did not participate in every month. Administrative counts of annual participation are not available.

5 In this article, higher income nonparticipants are defined as consumer units with 12-month incomes greater than 130 percent of poverty. Some participating consumer units also have incomes greater than this threshold. These consumer units may be eligible through a categorical eligibility rule, or the actual income of the SNAP unit may differ from the consumer-unit income.

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About the Author

James Mabli

James Mabli is Associate Director of Human Services Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rosalie Malsberger

Rosalie Malsberger is a graduate student in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.