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Experimental Estimates of the Barriers to Food Stamp Enrollment

In the post-welfare reform era, Food Stamps have become an increasingly important aspect of the social safety net. Yet, take-up rates for Food Stamps are relatively low, especially among low-income working families, who may be more sensitive than non-workers to perceived stigma associated with Food Stamps. In particular, many potential recipients are under the impression that Food Stamp benefits are still paid û as the name of the program suggests û in special coupons that are stigmatizing to use at the grocery store. Today, though, benefits are paid via a card (EBT) that looks and feels much like a credit card, and can be swiped at the grocery store checkout line using the same card reading machine that is used for credit and debit card purchases. This paper describes the results of a randomized experiment conducted through H&R Block Tax Preparation offices in two California counties that offered to help potentially eligible clients in the Food Stamp Program. In some offices, the outreach program used language and brochures consistent with the standard Food Stamp outreach materials distributed by the USDA. In other offices, the outreach materials played up the lack of stigma in today’s program by describing the EBT card and the ease of its use. We find that individuals are much more likely to respond favorably to the outreach program if it highlights the lack of stigma. A second experiment offered a random subset of these respondents additional assistance in filling out the application form and filing it on their behalf directly with the county Food Stamp office. Respondents were more likely to successfully enroll in the program if they received more assistance in filing their application.


Economic Support, Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance, Means-Tested Programs