Listen to any Nevada politician’s stump speech for long enough and you’ll hear a similar refrain — after the wrenching 2008 recession, the state’s economy is back on track.
Nevada’s economy is humming along nicely, as typical indicators such as job growth, GDP and unemployment all show the state economy surpassing or coming close to pre-recession peaks, including the highest level of private sector job growth of any state.
But there’s one nagging indicator hinting that Nevada’s economic recovery hasn’t applied evenly to all residents of the Silver State.
Even as the unemployment rate has dipped, enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also referred to as food stamps, skyrocketed during the recession and has stayed high over the past decade, with nearly one out of every seven Nevadans relying on the federally funded safety net program at some point during the year.
Although the amount of SNAP recipients has remained relatively flat over the past three years, the total number of enrollees has increased dramatically since the start of the recession. The number of SNAP cases (a lower figure than people enrolled in the program, since more than one person can reside in a “household”) has increased from around 63,000 at the start of 2007 to more than 227,800 in March 2018 — an increase of 259 percent.
The increase has continued even after the worst of the recession ended in 2009, jumping by about 126,000 cases since then, good for a 123 percent increase over the last nine years.
Nevada’s status is somewhat of an outlier — nationally, more people enrolled for SNAP benefits throughout the 2008 economic recession, hitting a peak of more than 46 million people receiving benefits from the program in 2012. Enrollment in the program has declined by about 4 million people since that peak, and 45 states reported having a smaller population of people receiving SNAP in 2016 than they did in 2013.
But Nevada is one of the five states that actually saw a growth in SNAP enrollment over that time, increasing its population receiving benefits by about 16 percent over the three-year period — the largest percentage growth of any state over that time.
State officials and nonprofits involved in food security point to a variety of reasons as to the seemingly contradictory trends of an improving state economy and high employment numbers without a corresponding decrease in the number of people enrolled in a food assistance program.
For one, advocates say that Nevadans are actually less hungry than they were earlier in the decade. Michael Phillips, a government affairs specialist with Southern Nevada food bank Three Square, said the organization has recently had to change its go-to line of one in seven Southern Nevadans going hungry to one in eight, given strides made in reducing levels of “food insecurity” in the state’s most populated area.
“As the economy has improved, food insecurity has gone down,” he said.
SNAP — formerly called the Food Stamp program until it was renamed in 2008 — benefits are fully funded by the federal government, with the administrative costs split between the federal government and the state.
Benefits under the program take a variety of factors into account including household size and net income, but the average recipient in 2017 received $126 a month according to the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. In Nevada, a family of three can bring in monthly income of $2,184 without taxes or other deductions before it's no longer eligible for the program.
The most recent SNAP enrollment numbers for Nevada tell a similar story — the monthly average of people participating in the entitlement program in March was at just over 441,000, or about 15 percent of the population.
Naomi Lewis, a deputy administrator with the state’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, said the uptick in enrolled SNAP population is in part because the department is doing a better job of reaching out to people who would be eligible for the program but haven’t applied for it. She estimated that the percent of SNAP-eligible people actually enrolled in the program has jumped from about 66 percent to 80 percent over the last decade.
“We figure we’ve got the bulk of the population enrolled who’s going to qualify,” she said. “And so now it’s really about finding those individuals who are not asking, not reaching out for help that they should be reaching out for."
Part of the reason for the initial jump in enrollment can be traced back to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage in 2012, which led to about 210,000 people in the state enrolling in health insurance. Because the state’s Department of Health and Human Services uses a “universal” application for potential benefit programs that determine applicability for cash assistance and food stamp programs, the number of SNAP enrollees increased in tandem as the state’s Medicaid enrollee population grew after the expansion.
Lewis said the state made three changes at the start of the recession that led to an increase in the number of SNAP recipients — a statewide waiver from work requirements for able-bodied adults and temporarily increasing the benefit amount and income limits on the program. But she credited the jump in enrollment largely as a result of the expanded Medicaid coverage.
“Our overall caseload has jumped dramatically during that time period of the ACA, and people becoming aware and applying for what they were required to apply for,” she said.
The department has begun targeting certain populations, including sending enrollment officers to hospitals that serve indigent populations, correctional facilities for just-released prisoners and the recently launched homeless resource center and courtyard in Las Vegas. Lewis said the department was also targeting seniors, who make up a disproportionately small percentage of SNAP recipients in the state.
But program enrollment has stayed high in part for structural reasons. Many of Nevada’s low-earning service industry workers remain eligible for SNAP benefits, as their salaries aren’t high enough to adequately meet all the bills — including the cost of food.
“We still are one of the fastest growing states in the nation, and you have a lot of people coming here who think there’s a lot of great opportunities, and they find they’re not getting paid what they think they should be getting paid,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of stories like that, with people who are working but aren’t making enough money to feed their families.”
Although one plank in Gov. Brian Sandoval's strategic planning framework calls for the state to decrease dependency on SNAP by 10 percent by 2020, Lewis said only looking at SNAP enrollment numbers as evidence to whether or not there were more or less hungry people in the state didn’t tell the whole story.
“I don’t think it's that easy of a question to answer,” she said. “Lots of variables in that equation.”
She pointed to a number of programs and partnerships that the department has with community colleges as evidence of a strong emphasis on workforce development — long a priority for Sandoval. But Lewis said part of the difficulty was finding employment for SNAP recipients that would allow them to make enough money to feed themselves and their families.
“A good chunk of our population is working,” she said. “They’re just in service sector jobs, since that’s where Nevada is at, and that’s what their skill level is. And those service sector jobs are not necessarily enough to support their families.”
Regardless, it’s likely that Nevada’s SNAP population will decrease sometime in the near future, with the coming expiration of a statewide work requirement waiver for so-called “Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents,” (ABAWD) or people between the age of 18 and 49 who are not disabled and don’t have dependants.
Under the 1996 federal change to welfare programs, that population of people is limited to receiving only three months of SNAP benefits over a three year period, but states are allowed to request temporary waivers from the federal government if they have persistent levels of high unemployment.
Without the waiver, that population of people are limited to receiving limited benefits unless they meet additional work requirements, either working or training for at least 80 hours a month, participate in “qualifying” education and training activities for at least 80 hours per month or comply with an unpaid work program through the state.
Nevada is one of eight U.S. states and territories that has a statewide waiver for the ABAWD population in effect for the current year, and the state has an estimated 59,300 people who fall into that category.
A little-noticed bill — SB323 in the 2017 Legislature — sponsored by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela and approved unanimously, requires the state Department of Health and Human Services to request any and all waivers available to the state and created certain new thresholds in case the state’s employment levels reach a high enough level where the statewide waiver no longer applies — taking some discretion away from the department.
“It took the decision out of our hands,” Lewis said.
But waivers are dependent on total unemployment levels, and it's unclear if the state will be able to apply for another year of waivers.
The bill also made other changes to prepare for a future where the state can no longer apply for the statewide waiver. For example, the state is allowed to exempt up to 15 percent of the ABAWD population from the new work requirements, so the new law requires creation of “priority groups” of certain demographic groups such as recently-discharged military members or caregivers to be exempted from the requirements.
Lewis said the department’s goal between now and the lapse of the statewide waiver would be to ensure soft landings for people who could lose their benefits.
“At the end of the three month period of time, we’ve offered individuals a pathway to employment or to disability or to some other solution beyond being just kicked off with no support,” she said.