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JPAM Closer Look Author Interview: Christian Gregory and Travis Smith on Salience, Food Security, and SNAP Receipt

July 23, 2019 02:30 PM

Interview by JPAM, 4/4/2019

Household food insecurity status in the United States is ascertained by a battery of closed-ended questions. The authors, Christian A. Gregory and Travis A. Smith, posit that the monthly nature of benefit receipt from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) creates experiences of food hardship, which become salient in the context of SNAP receipt, and, in turn, exert influence on the response to food security questions. The authors test this hypothesis by examining answers to a 30-day food security module in relation to when SNAP benefits are received. They find that for SNAP households near the end or at the beginning of the benefit month, the probability of being classified as food insecure increases by 11 percentage points, over a baseline of 42 percent. The authors also find that the probability of responding affirmatively to any of the first five items in the module increases during this time.

Gregory and Smith discuss three implications of this finding. First, for surveys with non-uniform monthly sampling, such as the Current Population Survey (CPS), their results point to the possibility that state and national estimates of prevalence could be biased. The direction of bias depends upon the fraction of SNAP households sampled when food insecurity conditions are most salient. Second, they show that using food insecurity status as a regressor in this situation can produce large biases. Third, the authors show that estimates of the marginal effect of SNAP on food insecurity are as much as twice as large for the sample whose responses to the food security module come at the end or the beginning of the month compared to others.


G_Christian_pic     2017_TravisSmith_square

JPAM's interview with the authors, Christian A. Gregory (left) and Travis A. Smith (right), follows: 

1. What inspired you to research food insecurity and SNAP?

We have both been conducting research in this area for much of our careers, as have many other researchers in the area. The literature is fairly decided in that SNAP reduces instances of food insecurity. However, prior to our work, we didn’t know if the timing of SNAP benefits in relation to when the food security module is administered altered responses. This is important for both measurement and policy.

2. What were the key findings of your research? Was there anything that surprised you?

The two main takeaways are (1) it matters when you administered the food security module in relation to the receipt of SNAP benefits: the middle of the month is a time when people feel most food secure. This implies that we should be administering the questionnaire evenly throughout the benefit month. (2) When conducting policy analysis, such as the impact of SNAP on food insecurity, it is important that the food security module is administered evenly throughout the month. We find that the effect of SNAP on reducing food insecurity can be twice as high when using the sample of household surveyed within the salience window as compared to those who are not.

While we hypothesized the direction of these results, we were surprised by their magnitude, as well as how robust the results were.

3. Some studies have shown that the elderly experience food insecurity the most and as a result, their health is impacted. Did your study find similar results?

We did not look at the elderly specifically. We are in the process of exploring how these results extend to other health-related reports, as well as interesting subpopulations such as the elderly.

4. What challenges did you face with conducting this research, especially since you were questioning if tools used to measure food insecurity are biased?

To the contrary, we were not questioning the tools used to measure food insecurity (i.e., the questionnaire), rather we were looking into how responses may vary depending upon when benefits are received. This is a behavioral question related to how humans respond to self-assessment questions: humans are more likely to affirm questions about hardships if those hardships occurred more recently, even when the timeframe from the question is stated. The bias is a result of the CPS administering the questionnaire in the week of December 12th. 

5. What policy considerations would you recommend with the findings that SNAP recipients report more food insecurity during the “salience window” at the end of the month?

In terms of policymaking, we should be aware that the nation’s preeminent survey on both measurement and analysis is the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is typically administered during the week of December 12th. On average, this is towards the middle of the benefit month. Thus, we are potentially underestimating both the prevalence of food insecurity as well as SNAP’s impact on reducing food insecurity when using CPS. Thus, while we know there exists a food insecurity problem in the United States, it may be higher than we previously thought. Likewise, while we know SNAP works to reduce food insecurity, it may work better than previously thought.

In terms of policy analysis, it’s important that researchers check or somehow verify that their survey is administered evenly throughout the benefit month. If not, it should be acknowledged so that policymakers and other researchers will know the direction of the potential bias.

6. Are you researching anything else related that addresses these issues?

Yes, but you will have to wait and see what those topics are! 


  • CHRISTIAN A. GREGORY is a Research Economist with the Economic Research Service (e‐mail:
  • TRAVIS A. SMITH is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Georgia at Athens, CAES Campus (e‐mail:



View the authors' JPAM article by clicking the image above.


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