Among farm workers, immigrants less likely to use SNAP

Household poverty level and number and ages of children in household among most powerful predictors of farm worker participation in SNAP.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as “food stamps” — that helps low-income individuals and families purchase food is less likely to be used by farm workers eligible for the benefit who are immigrants, Hispanic, male, childless or residing in California, new research from University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) health economists shows.

Published in the Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health, the study undercuts the common assumption that immigrant crop workers, especially Hispanic crop workers, utilize SNAP more than others. It also highlights the need to address non-participation among those who are legally eligible and could benefit from the program, which reduces hunger and stimulates spending.

"The worldwide financial crisis in the last decade definitely increased SNAP use among agricultural workers, which wasn’t surprising since SNAP participation historically fluctuates in tandem with poverty levels,” said lead author Paul Leigh, a professor with the department of public health sciences and the Center for Healthcare Policy & Research at UC-Davis.

“We did not see a disproportionate increase in SNAP use among immigrants — documented or undocumented — who are often the hardest hit by economic downturns,” Leigh said. “The greatest percentage-point increase was among citizens.”

A program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP offers funding for food or plants and seeds to grow food based on eligibility criteria such as income and family size. Undocumented immigrants may qualify if they have U.S.-born children, and documented immigrants may qualify after residing in the U.S. for five years.

Leigh, together with co-author Alvaro Medel-Herrero of the UC-Davis Center for Health & the Environment, wanted to develop a clear picture of SNAP participation among U.S. farm workers, focusing on the recession years following the financial crisis of 2007-08.

They analyzed data from 2003 through 2012 on adult respondents in about 18,000 households included in the U.S. Department of Labor's "National Agricultural Workers Survey," which contains demographic, employment, immigration and health information on crop workers, including whether they use SNAP. The data set is rare, according to Leigh, because it contains information on undocumented immigrants.

Respondents were divided, for comparisons, into three groups: (1) citizens, (2) documented immigrants and (3) undocumented immigrants. Immigrants in the study were nearly all Hispanic, but citizens were also grouped by ethnicity as non-Hispanic white, Hispanic or other.

More people participated in SNAP, mostly citizens

The results showed that SNAP participation among U.S. farm workers increased from 4.9% in 2008 to 18.7% in 2012 (13.8 points), reversing a downward trend in participation during the previous six years as the economy expanded. The number of farm worker households under the poverty line also increased, from 15% in 2008 to 24% (nine points) in 2012.

In terms of farm workers’ citizenship status, the greatest increase in SNAP participation was among citizens — from 9.5% to 26.9%. The second-highest increase was among undocumented immigrants, which went from 3.9% to 16.4%. SNAP participation among documented immigrants rose from 6.3% to 7.2%.

Immigrants were less likely to use SNAP

From 2003 through 2012, documented and undocumented farm worker immigrants were 40% and 43% less likely, respectively, to participate in SNAP than households headed by non-Hispanic white citizens with the same need, as determined by poverty level and number of children.

Also, for 2003 through 2012, the researchers found that farm workers who were Hispanic citizens were 30% less likely to participate in SNAP than non-Hispanic white citizens with the same poverty status and number of children.

The researchers found that, regardless of race or ethnicity, household poverty level and the number and ages of children in the household were among the most powerful predictors of farm worker participation in SNAP. Female heads of household also were 43% more likely to participate in the program than male heads of household.

California lags in SNAP enrollment

Finally, when holding household poverty status and number of children constant, farm workers who were residents of California were least likely to participate in SNAP, while residents of the Northwest were most likely to participate compared with residents of the East, Southeast, Midwest and Southwest. California traditionally has had lower SNAP enrollment than the rest of the nation, based on enrollment potential, possibly due to burdens associated with the application process, fear of deportation or lack of familiarity with the program.

The researchers hope their study helps secure the future of SNAP, which was expanded following the economic crisis but is currently being considered for sharp budget cuts. They also hope additional research identifies ways to address barriers to utilizing SNAP among eligible non-users.

“Farm workers and their families advance our agricultural economy and put food on all of our tables, and they have a right to eat as well,” Medel-Herrero said. “Assuring that SNAP is both available and accessible to them benefits all of us.”

The study, titled “Changing SNAP-Participation Trends among Farmworker Households in the U.S., 2003-2012,” was partially funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (grant 2U54OH007550-11). View the study results here.

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