What the food stamp analysis does and doesn’t tell us

Here’s what the state study of food stamp recipients released Wednesday tells us: about 58 percent of the 6,866 “able-bodied adults” who lost SNAP benefits because of new work requirement rules at some point in the next year received wages from an employer, and at a steadily increasing rate.

The preliminary findings line up those facts, but the report and its authors don’t draw a clear line between them, or make the case that the policy change caused that.

Importantly, the analysis from the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management doesn’t include a control group to show how the December 2014 group of SNAP recipients compares with other similar groups over time.

Absent the rule change, how many of those would have gotten jobs in the next year and how much would they have earned?

Amanda Rector, the state economist who worked on the analysis, wrote in an email that “since this was just a preliminary analysis, we didn’t attempt to make any conclusions about causality.”

The analysis tracks wage earnings of three groups affected by the rule change, which requires food stamp recipients to work 20 hours a week, attend school, take job training or volunteer.

The report is clear about some of its limitations and Rector answered a few more questions from me about other lines of inquiry about the food stamp policy change that are yet unexplored.

Those questions focused mostly on the 6,866 people who the report identified as having been cut from the food stamp program after December 2014, for not being able to comply with the new rule.

Rector noted that the wage increases for the groups compared favorably with the general population, where wages grew about 14 percent for the period, compared with 114 percent for among that group of 6,866. It’s unclear whether divergence between such a group and the general population is typical.

What is clear is that over time, more of the December 2014 group had jobs and they earned higher wages, though average quarterly earnings remained much lower than the statewide average, also lending to faster percentage growth.

Just as with the general population, the study aggregates wages earned and average quarterly wages only among the people employers reported paying — it doesn’t aim to explain what’s happening outside of the wage data.

For the group studied, that was the majority of people. About one-third of those 6,866 reporting earnings in any given quarter.

Those weren’t always the same people reporting wages in a given quarter, which is how we arrive at the total of about 58 percent of the group who reported wages at some point.

Rector said that the report only included those with a wage match in any given quarter and did not factor in someone who, say, earned wages in the first quarter of 2015 but then not in any other quarter. That’s because it’s hard to know just why someone didn’t show up in the wage data.

“We simply don’t have enough information at this point to know what was happening with the individuals who did not have a match,” Rector wrote. “It could be that they are self-employed in Maine, they may have moved to another state, or they may not be working at all for any number of reasons. Including the zero wages in the average would artificially lower the average wage because it is highly unlikely that all of the people with no wage record matches were not working.”

The report noted “there are several areas where additional data sources could provide a more detailed look at the employment outcomes” for the people excluded from the SNAP program.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.