Exploring the stigma of food stamps
This paper reports on theoretical research into the effect of stigma and social norms on policy outcomes of the Food Stamp program, in particular the effect on the caseload. As a general rule, it is impossible to predict whether norms will amplify or dampen the response of caseloads to any given policy intervention. Sometimes they have an effect, sometimes they do not. Much depends on whether the norms themselves change very much in response to policy changes. Social feedback (each norm violation encourages more violations) makes policy predictions uncertain. It can translate very small shocks into very large changes in the caseload. Norm systems can collapse abruptly. Norms can alleviate administrative problems involving targeting, since norms can define "true need" in a social sense and allow all of the truly needy to claim benefits. Eligible nonparticipants are viewed as "not needy" in the social sense, though they may be needy according to objective criteria. Norms may also lessen a program's incentive effects (against work, for example). Norms may exacerbate administrative problems involving resource availability. To the extent that program eligibility differs from socially defined need, the program will be unpopular. Norms also add considerable uncertainty to the environment of policy planning and execution. Policymakers who hope to reduce the influence of stigma on program resources and administration should consider localizing program eligibility rules, so that the rules correspond more closely to social definitions of need. Intense, broad-based local outreach efforts may also reduce stigma's power.
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