On signing the Food Stamp Act of 1964, President Johnson noted that “as a permanent program, the food stamp plan will be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty” (Johnson, 1964). From a humble beginning of 2.9 million recipients per month and $228 million in benefits in 1969 (earliest national figures), the program has grown to serve 47 million persons with benefits of over $74.6 Billion in 2012 (USDA, 2013a). In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the average monthly benefit was under $20 per month per month, we did not record the effects of the then ’Food Stamp’ program on poverty. But the program was already having major positive impacts on mothers’ health and then birth outcomes for poor people, especially for blacks and then longer run gains in health and school achievement (Almond, Hoynes and Schanzenbach, 2011; Hoynes, Schanzenbach and Almond, 2012).

The annual effects of SNAP on poverty itself were first estimated in the late 1970s and then regularly after the Census Bureau began to record recipients and amounts of food stamps in 1979 (e.g., see U.S. Bureau of Census, 1982). This paper follows in that tradition and examines SNAP’s effectiveness as an antipoverty weapon. We begin with a brief overview of the program. We then estimate the extent to which SNAP reduces the prevalence of poverty, and also its depth and severity. Finally, we discuss the primary challenge to getting an accurate measure of SNAP’s antipoverty effect, and how the design of the program influences that effect.

Document Type

Research Paper

Publication Date


Discussion Paper Number

DP 2013-06

Notes/Citation Information

Paper prepared for the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research-University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty Five Decades of Food Stamps conference in September, 2013, and now revised for APPAM