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Shoplifting in Chicago dropped after a change in the food stamp program

Theft from Chicago grocery stores dropped after Illinois changed its food stamp distribution schedule. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Spreading out when food stamps are issued reduced theft from Chicago grocery stores by more than 30 percent, according to new research from Analisa Packham of Miami University and Jillian Carr of Purdue University.

Before 2010, most benefits in Illinois under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the massive federal food stamp program, were given out on the first of the month. In 2010, the state enacted a new policy that spread distribution more evenly throughout the month.

There are a few reasons to do this: Officials don't get hit with a huge workload all at once, and stores don’t suffer overcrowding. And previous research found that some grocery stores hike up their prices near the beginning of the month, when they know food stamp recipients will get their benefits.

Packham and Carr examined crime reports from Chicago in the periods before and after the change and found that crime — particularly theft at grocery stores — dropped off dramatically after the policy was enacted in February 2010.

Other research has found that more than half of all families run out of SNAP benefits within two weeks. If they're distributed at the beginning of the month, families may run into “financial desperation” by the end of the month, according to the study, which could drive up the rate of theft.

To test this idea, the researchers examined the pattern of grocery store theft each month. When the benefits were distributed mostly on the first of the month, there was a big spike in grocery store theft about three weeks later. After the policy change, that pattern disappeared.

The idea at the heart of the new study is what economists call "consumption smoothing." Monthly paychecks and government benefits are often distributed at the beginning of the month. But people are better off when they spend about the same amount from week to week, rather than using all their income at once. We’re surprisingly bad at budgeting our spending ourselves, said Jennifer Doleac, a professor studying the economics of crime at the University of Virginia, so good policies can help us budget.

Packham and Carr estimate that the Illinois policy reduced grocery store theft in Chicago by over 500 cases per year. The research suggests that the timing of government aid, not just the amount, can impact its effectiveness. “The state’s policy didn’t involve the provision of more benefits,” Doleac said. “They were just shifting around the timing of when those benefits are given out.”

Seven states — Alaska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont — currently have one SNAP distribution date per month. Because the benefits are loaded automatically onto a special debit card, changing the distribution cycle shouldn’t be difficult, according to Packham.

And if benefits were distributed more frequently, crime might decrease even further.

“We know people aren’t very good at consumption smoothing,” Packham said. “If we could flip a switch and, say, distribute twice a month, we could avoid some of these unintended consequences.”