*Names in bold indicate Presenter
The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether the direct certification policy in the National School Lunch Program had significantly positive effects on the targeted students’ program participation. Under direct certification, information from welfare agencies, not from applications, is used to directly certify students in families receiving those benefits. By the mid-1990s and throughout the early 2000s, direct certification grew rapidly, and two-thirds of school districts were using the method to certify eligible students for the program. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act (CNR) of 2004 made it mandatory for all school districts to directly certify students from SNAP households by July 1, 2008. Despite its specified goal and the rapid acceptance of direct certification in the recent policies, it is surprising that only a few studies have examined the basic question.
The data for this study came from 17 years (1994 through 2011) of the March Supplement (or Annual Social and Economic Supplements) to the Current Population Survey. This study used standard difference-in-difference (DD) methods that have been widely used to study the effects of policy interventions on individual outcome changes. In this study, the target group of direct certification in the NSLP is categorically eligible students in poor and low-income families, and the nontarget group is students in the poor and low-income families who were not categorically eligible. The DD estimate can be obtained by comparing the difference between the change of NSLP participation of categorically eligible student and the change of program participation of categorically noneligible students.
First, the descriptive findings showed that the target students’ NSLP participation remained rather stable during the direct certification policy periods while the nontarget students’ participation in general declined, particularly in the post-CNR of 2004 period. Second, the results from three DD analyses showed that the post-CNR periods were attributed to an increase in the NSLP participation by approximately 4 percentage points among the categorically eligible students. Third, findings suggested that the increase in the NSLP participation occurred among the eligible students whose families received SNAP. As expected, students whose families received only TANF did not experience any increase in the NSLP participation despite their also being categorically eligible. Fourth, the analyses did not find any evidence that the direct certification policies had any spillover effects that boosted NSLP participation even among the nontargeted students. Last, it appeared that the direct certification policies began to show its influence in the NSLP participation after the CNR of 2004 when it was made mandatory for all eligible students in SNAP-receiving families. The findings also suggested that PRWORA might have contributed to the fact that the target students’ participation did not improve during the pre-CNR years.
It was obvious from the analyses that the effect of categorical eligibility on the program participation was very substantial. Most important, among the categorically eligible students, those who were subject to the mandatory direct certification were the ones who reaped the increase in program participation suggesting the importance of a mandatory implementation.