How low-income programs fail the rural poor

Distance to closest SNAP outlet. (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)
Distance to closest SNAP outlet. (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)

In New Hampshire, about one in 10 households receive food stamps. In neighboring Maine, it’s one in four. But drill down deeper you’ll find another type of geographical divide in New England.

In half the states in New England, people in rural zip codes live at least twice as far from the nearest establishment that accepts food stamps as those living in urban zip codes. The gap was widest in Massachusetts, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. There, people in urban zip codes live about a mile away from such outlets, while people in rural zip codes lived an average of 3.3 miles away.

That fact underscores an unfortunate reality about the food stamp program and others aimed at helping the poor: They are much harder to implement for the rural poor.

“While effective poverty reduction in urban areas often provides basic needs through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and housing vouchers, in rural areas, these solutions may not have the same impact,” the Boston Fed reported last month alongside the results from its most recent community outlook survey.

The survey results found that nearly 28 percent of urban respondents saw affordable housing availability increase over the six-month period leading up to when the survey was conducted in early October. Just under 8 percent of rural respondents reported the same. When it comes to housing, many of the programs focus on urban populations who can be served more efficiently thanks to higher population densities, the Fed argues in the report.

And when it comes to food stamps, the program in some cases fails to assist the people most at risk. Households in rural Maine zip codes, for example, are 1.3 times more likely than those in urban zip codes to receive SNAP assistance. They’re more likely to need it and more likely to be farther from a place where they can use it.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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