Selected Works in Progress
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is central to the US safety net. SNAP is the only universal program that is part of the safety net. Surprisingly, a sizable portion of the eligible population does not claim benefits. From 2010 to 2013, SNAP participation rates among those eligible ranged between 72% to 86% with take-up rates among the elderly as low as 33%. Despite the size and importance of SNAP, we have an incomplete understanding of the determinants of participation, particularly among rural, impoverished populations. Specifically, we understand very little about the causal role that geographic barriers play in determining program participation across rural America.
This paper provides a comprehensive assessment of whether travel distances from place of residence to SNAP-authorized retail stores and SNAP program offices impacts program participation. Data limitations have prevented researchers from fully exploring the impact of travel distance on nutrition program participation. Existing research uses coarse proxies for travel distance and surveys with documented underreported program participation or, relies on a short cross-section as in the case of FoodAPS, which combines high-frequency national surveys with administrative data on SNAP participation. We overcome these challenges using novel administrative SNAP and WIC data for every applicant and recipient across 23 states over two decades, allowing us to explore these topics at an unprecedented level of breadth, depth, and accuracy. These data include administrative records on program participation and geocoded residence, which permit us to precisely measure the household-specific travel distance to the closest program office/clinic or grocer as well as program participation each month. We merge these records with the location of every SNAP-authorized food retailer in the country and every SNAP office as well as with administrative TANF and HUD program records, which allow us to determine cross-program participation.