Administrative Burden in United States SNAP Data
Practice “full stack” data visualization skills, from project planning, through data collection and management, to planning of visualizations, and on to programming and formatting a visualization portfolio. In this portfolio, the objective is to present a set of visualizations which inform an audience through the visual presentation of data, rather than through text or speech alone.
Policy Masters Student
This project consists of several visualizations, presented as a blog post, where text is used to frame the graphs and charts.
Administrative Burden in United States SNAP Data
Administrative burden is one of the many ways that people who are most in need of assistance are penalized by poorly designed systems (Christensen et. al, 2019). Burden through paperwork, documentation, and administrative hoops all have the potential to make things more difficult for people eligible for government assistance programs, leading to administrative exclusion, or “nonparticipation” (Brodkin, 2010).
In this portfolio project I investigate US food assistance data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, referred to as CalFresh in California, Food Assistance, or other names in specific states. In addition to looking at national data, I also look closer at possible effects of administrative burden on food assistance program enrollment across three states: Michigan, California, and Wyoming.
Christensen, Julian, et al. “Human Capital and Administrative Burden: The Role of Cognitive Resources in Citizen-State Interactions.” Public Administration Review, vol. 80, no. 1, Jan-Feb 2020, pp. 127–36.
Brodkin, Evelyn Z., and Malay Majmundar. “Administrative Exclusion: Organizations and the Hidden Costs of Welfare Claiming.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 2010, pp. 827–48.
SNAP Eligibility Across States
Federal SNAP eligibility is determined by a household’s income and resources, including gross monthly income, net income, and assets, all of which must be below certain thresholds for program eligibility.
The graph below illustrates the percent of eligible SNAP recipients in each state for the 2020 fiscal year (October 1, 2019 - September 30, 2020), based on an eligibility formula created by Mathematica.* The three states I investigate further, Michigan, California, and Wyoming are highlighted below. All three states are relatively middle of the pack for rates of eligibility for SNAP programs, between 9-15% of eligible state populations.
*Mathematica is an American research organization and consulting company. You can learn more about the formula applied using census data, see the data tables utilized for this chart, or view the full Mathematica report, here.
SNAP Participation by State
Using the eligibility information from above, the graph below shows estimated SNAP participation rates by state. Using these metrics derived by Mathematica, several states have participation rates over 100%, which is a result of the estimates and estimation formulas used to calculate both rates.
Overall, this chart serves to indicate which states have high SNAP participation based on eligibility. In fiscal year 2020, Michigan shows a much higher SNAP participation rate than California or Wyoming at over 82%. California shows a 63% participation rate, while Wyoming, the lowest in the nation, comes in at just over 43% of eligible residents participating. While all Michigan, California, and Wyoming all have eligibility rates within 6% of each other, the difference in participation rates is stark.
You can learn more about the formula applied using census data, see the data tables utilized for this chart, or view the full Mathematica report, here.
Timely Processing of Applications
A further indication of how well SNAP programs are administered is the timely processing of applications. The US Food and Nutrition Service collects information about the application process as part of a quality control process.
According to US Food and Nutrition Service website:
“A case is considered processed timely if the household has an opportunity to participate within seven days of the application date for expedited service cases and within 30 days of the application date for regular processing cases. This measure is not a strict measure of regulatory compliance. In some cases, applicant-caused delay (such as missing an interview on an expedited application) may result in the action being coded as untimely although the State agency was in full compliance with program regulations.”
The data below was collected in 2022, two years after the data from the previous two charts, however, it remains a good metric to better understand which states might have better administrative processes.
You can find the data used for this and the following visualizations on the USDA website here.
TIP: Drag your mouse on any plot to select and zoom in on a smaller box area.
To further investigate application processing timeliness, the graph below shows the relationship between percent of applications processed in a timely manner and the percentage of state residents participating in the SNAP program.
The linear best fit line, which excludes the District of Columbia, shows a small positive correlation. The District of Columbia was excluded as an outlier for the line of best fit because of the presumed differences it has in being a federally run district and not a state.
Administrative Burden Factors
Administrative burden can be measured using many metrics, however, without much scholarship focusing specifically on administrative burden in SNAP participation enrollment, relevant data was limited.
A few indicators of Administrative Burden that were available and easily accessible include the following six metrics, as collected and defined by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
Eligibility Screening Tools and / or Benefit Calculators
Online Policy Manuals
Social Media Accounts
The following chart shows how many factors each state’s SNAP website has; more factors (a darker color on the map below) indicate more resources for benefit applicants and enrollees.
You can find the data used for these visualizations from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website here.
In conjunction with the map above, the heatmap below shows which burden reducing factors each state has and compares state SNAP participation levels for each state. SNAP participation rates are normalized on a scale of 1 to 0 for easier comparison in the chart below -- thus a 0 for participation indicates the lowest level of participation among the states graphed, not a 0% participation rate in general.
Exploring Michigan allows a closer look into how the number of SNAP recipients in one state has changed over time. The first graph below shows how the number of SNAP recipients has generally declined since 2010, while the second zooms in more closely on the time period between 2018-2022.
Notably, around January 2018 project: reform by Michigan based design firm, Civilla, began implementation to reduce barriers to the Michigan benefits application. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are also evident in the graphs below, as they resulted in an eligibility and enrollment spike.
You can find the data used for these visualizations from the FRED Economic Data website (originally pulled from the US Census Bureau) here.
Similar to Michigan, California also underwent an online application revamp for their SNAP program (known in California as CalFresh) by Code for America in 2019. In the graph below, an uptick in applicants seemingly coincides with the implementation of the new application.
You can find and download the data used for this California visualization from the CA.gov website here.