By LINDSEY ADKISON The Brunswick NewsThe fact that participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in three Coastal Georgia Counties increased during the Great Recession did not come as much of a surprise to Taylor Rhodes, a professor of economics at College of Coastal Georgia.
The surprising information he discovered in a recent study is that since the national economy has appeared to improve, participation in SNAP — known commonly by its previous moniker, food stamps — has not shown signs of slowing down.
As an economist, Rhodes is interested in how figures and percentage points reflect the lives of very real people. That's why he enjoys his work.
Through the college, Rhodes has access to the resources of the Reg Murphy Center for Economics and Policy Studies to learn more about how economic trends impact the lives of the men and women of Coastal Georgia.
"The mission of the Reg Murphy Center is to investigate and provide insight on local economic conditions. Additionally, some of the courses I teach at CCGA incorporate empirical methodologies in evaluating the economic performance of our community," Rhodes said.
His recent line of research does just that. Rhodes' work examines SNAP trends for the Brunswick Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes Glynn, McIntosh and Brantley counties.
SNAP is the largest federal in-kind nutrition program that provides low income households with monthly benefits through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. The card is used to purchase program-eligble food at participating locations. To qualify, a household must pass a gross monthly income requirement (make below 130 percent of the monthly federal poverty guideline), a net monthly income requirement (make below 100 percent of the monthly federal poverty guideline) and an asset test, where resources must be below a stated threshold (currently below $2,250).
In one report, Rhodes used data to compare how the level of program participation has changed over time. He looked at the area's participation in the program before, during and after the Great Recession. He also looked at local, state and national statistics and how they compared.
"Using data from 1997 to approximately 2011, the paper examines how SNAP participation rates have changed over time, particularly before and after the 2007 recession. The paper also comments on the difficulty in reducing the SNAP participation rates as we recover from the most recent recession," Rhodes said.
What he found was not altogether surprising — the rates in the three counties that make up the MSA rose during the recession. That was also true for the state and nation.
In the U.S., SNAP participation rates were increased by 7.4 percent from 1997 to 2007 versus 11.8 percent after 2007. In Georgia, the results were much the same — SNAP participation had increased by 8.7 percent before 2007 and 15 percent after 2007.
But for the Brunswick statistical area, results were a bit surprising, even for Rhodes. Glynn county's SNAP participation rates increased by 9.9 percent from 1997 to 2007 and 15 percent after 2007. McIntosh county SNAP rates also grew by nearly 12 percent before 2007 and 15 percent after. In Brantley county, SNAP participation increased by 12.5 percent before the recession in 2007 and 19.3 percent after 2007.
"Georgia, Brantley and Glynn each experienced relatively larger increases in SNAP participation rates when compared to the size of the increase experienced nationally," Rhodes said.
And each county also saw a higher participation rate than the state and the nation during post-recession period. But Glynn and McIntosh counties had a less significant increase than Brantley County.
Rhodes' next step was to determine why this was happening. Why weren't SNAP rates decreasing when the economy was apparently improving in the nation and state at large? The reason, he found, was that right before the recession in 2007, the Brunswick MSA experienced significant reductions in median household income. In 2007, those were $23,786 annually nationwide and $23,370 statewide.
"Averages before 2007 show median house incomes in our immediate counties were substantially below national and state averages. Brantley's average was $5,900 below the national average. Glynn was $2,000 below the national average. McIntosh was $7,400 below the national average," he said.
This shortfall increased after 2007. Brantley's average was $6,500 below the national average. Glynn was $2,160 below the national average and McIntosh $7,040 below. This was another finding that surprised Rhodes.
"I was surprised by some of the magnitudes, particularly the high average SNAP participation rate in the post 2007 period: 19.3 percent in Brantley and 15 percent in Glynn and McIntosh counties," he said.
Continual decline in median household incomes, even after the recession, led to higher SNAP participation rates, Rhodes study found. Income figures for the three counties were already below the national rates before the recession and have failed to improve since.
Rhodes also wondered if getting SNAP assistance motivates participants not to work.
"In general, my findings suggest SNAP participation rates are more influenced by household income measures, like median household income, and labor market performance measures, like the unemployment rate, and are less influenced by SNAP benefit levels," he said.
"My October 2015 report on SNAP in Brantley, Glynn and McIntosh raised the point that low median household income levels likely present a challenge to decreasing the high SNAP participation rates in Brantley, Glynn and McIntosh, as they were significantly below the national average."
Finding a solution is a challenge. Rhodes says that to reduce the SNAP participation rate, the counties must create policies conducive to raising income levels. The goal of local officials, he says, should be to help spur more full-time employment with above average income potential. That would create a domino affect where more skilled, higher trained workers will come to the area.
But just what programs the counties should implement remain uncertain.
"What do we do about it? That's a different line of research," Rhodes said. "We will have to look at what other counties with similar situations in similar areas of the country have done to turn this around."
Then he would have to gauge whether those programs would be feasible in Brunswick and the surrounding areas.
Reporter Lindsey Adkison writes about business and other local topics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org on Facebook or at 265-8320 ext. 346.