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Have electronic benefits cards improved food access for food stamp recipients?

Nicholas Lovett (Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, Whitewater, Wisconsin, USA)
Yuhan Xue (Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, Whitewater, Wisconsin, USA)

Journal of Economic Studies

ISSN: 0144-3585

Article publication date: 13 November 2017




The purpose of this paper is to investigate electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card reforms in California’s Food Stamp Program, and its impact on food insecurity.


The authors test the hypothesis that EBT cards reduce food insecurity by reducing the food costs associated with loss and theft of benefits, as well as by decreasing fraudulent sales of benefits. The authors use a natural experiment in the form of the time-varying roll-out of EBT card reforms across California counties in conjunction with the California Health Interview Survey, to conduct an event study.


The findings suggest no evidence for a decrease in food insecurity. The authors do, however, find evidence of a transitory increase in food insecurity immediately following implementation of EBT reforms. Reforms increase the likelihood of food insecurity by about 3 percent for up to two months. The result is distinguishable from zero, and robust to changes in specification, inclusion of controls, and measurement choices. The authors posit the increase was due to frictions in the transition to EBT card systems.


Although a considerable literature with regard to the FSP exists, very little has been written investigating a specific linkage between EBT cards and food security. The findings are not supportive of policy makers’ hypothesis that a positive externality of EBT benefits delivery is a lasting reduction in food insecurity.



The authors thank the editor and the anonymous referees, Carlos Dobkin, Robert Fairlie, Russ Kashian, Justin Marion, Jennifer Poole, Jonathan Robinson, Alan Spearot, and David Welsch, for providing generous help and feedback. The authors also thank Jebaraj Asirvatham, Jose Sanchez-Fung, and numerous seminar and conference participants for very valuable comments. The research in this paper uses confidential versions of the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The authors gratefully acknowledge an award received from the CHIS Data Access Center (DAC). All mistakes are the authors’ own.


Lovett, N. and Xue, Y. (2017), "Have electronic benefits cards improved food access for food stamp recipients?", Journal of Economic Studies, Vol. 44 No. 6, pp. 958-975.



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