Panel Paper: SNAP Benefits and Crime: Evidence from Changing Disbursement Schedules

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Stetson D (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jillian Carr, Purdue University and Analisa Packham, Miami University

Government transfer programs infuse a substantial amount of resources into the budgets of millions of low-income families each month. Under some states’ aid disbursement schemes, there are extended periods of time within each month in which no recipients receive transfers, generally limiting the amount of resources in communities.

In this paper, we study the effects of nutritional aid disbursement on crime. In 2015, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) served over 45 million Americans, providing benefits via electronic benefit cards redeemable for only food. Research shows that families receiving benefits often run out of benefits before the end of the month, resulting in reductions in the quantity and quality of food consumed. In this paper we aim to study the effects of SNAP benefit disbursement on community-level and individual-level crime.

We utilize two main sources of variation to study the effects of SNAP on crime: (i) a policy change in Illinois which substantially increased the number of SNAP distribution days, and (ii) an Indiana policy that issues SNAP benefits by first letter of last name. They both arise due to the leeway that states have in implementing SNAP benefits.

Analyzing reported crime at the Census Tract-level in Chicago, we find that staggering SNAP benefits throughout the month leads to a 20% percent decrease in crime at grocery stores, and a 28% decline in theft, specifically, at grocery stores. We implement an interrupted time series methodology to take advantage of the abrupt nature of the policy change, and are able to show that these effects are not driven by a number of specification choices or associated with any other marked changes in local variables. We are able to demonstrate, though, that SNAP recipients use more of their benefits later in the month after the policy change. A reduction in crime in the middle part of the calendar month (days 10-23) drives our results, suggesting that receiving benefits later may help families to consumption smooth.

Indiana conviction-level data that include the first letter of each convicted individual’s last name allow us to also disentangle the effects of various times in the calendar month from the effect of time passed since benefit issuance. We find that the relationship between time since SNAP issuance and crime is nonlinear in Indiana. Findings show that criminal behavior decreases in the second and third weeks following receipt, but increases in the last week of the benefit cycle, potentially due to resource constraints. This increase in the last week is especially prevalent for property crime committed by women, who are more likely to receive benefits.

Taken together, we believe that these results indicate that families receiving SNAP benefits face considerable difficulty in budgeting their consumption over the course of the month. Crime related to resource acquisition is affected by the SNAP benefit schedule as a consequence. We feel that further efforts to stagger benefit disbursement or even disburse benefits in multiple payments per family each month may have the benefit of reducing crime.