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Timing of Benefit Distribution has Major Effect on Crime

In order to estimate the effects of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receipt on crime, Purdue Associate Professor of Economics Dr. Jillian Carr and coauthor Dr. Analisa Packham of Vanderbilt University focus on policies that change the timing of benefit distribution.

Jillian CarrTheir research paper, “SNAP Benefits and Crime: Evidence from Changing Disbursement Schedules,” published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, is the first to shed light on how SNAP receipt affects criminal behavior and incentives by analyzing how crime levels are affected by changing payment schedules and how types of crime differentially respond to nutritional assistance timing.

The research shows that families living in poverty may seek illicit income during times of the month when they experience scarcity --i.e. when their SNAP benefits run out. This finding highlights the importance of SNAP disbursement timing.

SNAP recipients are issued debit-like cards to which funds are electronically loaded once each month to be redeemed for foods at supermarkets or other authorized retailers. In some states, benefits are made available to all recipients on the same day each month. In other states, different groups of recipients have different issuance days, which is known as a practice called “staggering.”

Effects of SNAP Disbursement on Crime

This research suggests that changing the disbursement date for SNAP benefits leads to an increase in overall crime rates. Carr came to this conclusion by recording the effects of two SNAP policy changes: Illinois’ policy change that substantially increased the number of disbursement days and Indiana’s policy change that moved its disbursement schedule to later in the month.

In Illinois, the SNAP distribution schedule was changed so that less benefits were given out on the first of the month, and more were given out on the 4th, 7th and 10th. Carr found that this led to a precipitous drop in crime and theft at grocery stores (17.5% and 20.9%, respectively). The days with the greatest decline were those around the 3rd week of the month.

In Indiana, SNAP benefits are issued in order of last name in a staggered manner. They defined each individual’s “benefit month” starting on the day they received benefits. This approach allowed Carr to measure, using conviction data from Indiana, crimes committed in each week of the “benefit month” accounting for calendar month effects. She found that crime falls by 4.3% in the third week after SNAP issuance but increases in the last week of the benefit cycle, when resources are likely to be most scarce.

Why the Increase in Crime Rates at the End of the Benefit Cycle?

The increase in crime rates is driven by the increase in thefts and crimes at grocery stores. Half of all families receiving SNAP exhaust their benefits in two weeks; therefore, recipients face a scarcity of resources during the remainder of the month. In response to this scarcity, they may turn to crime to meet nutritional needs.

Evidence suggests that women are more likely to steal food or other resources after exhausting their benefits. The data shows us that crime increases by 14.2% for women in the fourth week of the month after receiving SNAP benefits. At the end of the month, older women commit theft as a way to provide resources for their families. This narrative is especially troubling when considering potential spillover effects to children: if single mothers commit more crimes as a result of resource scarcity, making them more likely to lose government financial assistance or even face incarceration, it could impose large costs on their families as well.

These research findings are important for understanding the choices that families in poverty face in response to the timing of government transfers, and how distribution schedules can affect the likelihood that a crime will be committed.