Cliff Effects and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The American Dream tells us that if we just work hard enough, no matter our origins, we can succeed. However, many low-income families in the United States would beg to differ. Their efforts to become self-sufficient through employment can trigger a reduction in or termination of their benefits, resulting in a net loss of income for their families. This problem is known as the “cliff effect.” (See “Combining Earnings with Public Supports: Cliff Effects in Massachusetts“) Some of the largest cliffs occur when housing and child care assistance are lost. When a family has housing and/or child care benefits, costs for those necessities are a defined, affordable share of the family’s income, but they skyrocket when the family enters the private market, where there are no controls on prices.

But the cliff effect also exists in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). SNAP is an essential and effective program that helps people of all ages stay healthy and economically secure. Though the program’s explicit goal is to improve food security (by providing consistent, adequate access to enough food for an active, healthy life), it also acts as a work support, helping low-wage working households to stretch their dollar further.

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