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IPR Economist Provides Ideas to Improve Food Assistance

Diane Schanzenbach points to lasting benefits of SNAP and food stamps


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Nearly half of SNAP beneficiaries are children. Work by IPR fellow Diane Schanzenbach has shown long-term benefits extending into adulthood for children who receive SNAP assistance.

The November 1 cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) now leave a family of four $36 poorer, resulting in 21 fewer meals each month, according to government estimates. Amid debate over more funding cuts, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach authored a report that indicates how slashing the program will increase food insecurity in the United States, which is now at an all-time high.

“When food stamps are cut by $40 a month, for a lot people that’s the difference between making ends meet and not making ends meet,” Schanzenbach told CBS News earlier this month.

She presented the report at a December 4 briefing on “Supporting America’s Lower-Middle-Class Families.” The event was sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which focuses on developing policy proposals for economic growth that will benefit more Americans.

While pointing to research showing how SNAP—often referred to as food stamps—yields positive short- and long-term benefits, Schanzenbach details how it reduces poverty, in addition to boosting a person’s future health and earnings.

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Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

In the report, Schanzenbach proposes five policy reforms to improve SNAP and addresses criticisms of the existing program. She believes the program can be better equipped to handle the current challenges of rising obesity and a period of high unemployment and extraordinary economic hardship for many.

“There are these deep holes in the safety net, and the Food Stamp Program is one of the fundamental safety net programs that fills those holes, especially when there’s not work to be had when we have great recessions,” Schanzenbach told the crowd at the event.

To combat rising obesity and increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, she recommends a financial incentive. Previous research has shown subsidizing healthy foods results in more of them being consumed, whereas taxing unhealthy items like sugar-laden beverages is unlikely to prevent people from buying them.

Schanzenbach also recommends three adjustments to the benefit formula, largely unchanged since 1978, to better align it with current economic realities. She suggests retaining current safeguards and imposing more flexible time limits on benefits for able-bodied adults with no children. This change reflects the nation’s high rate of unemployment and the hardship that persists for many in the post-Great Recession economy.

Her report also details how many of the fears that people have about the safety net program are unjustified. For example, many people believe fraud and trafficking­—when SNAP recipients sell their benefits to retailers for cash—is a serious problem. However, the rate of trafficking was only 1.3 percent from 2009 to 2011, primarily at smaller retailers. The rate at major grocery stores, where most SNAP benefits are used, was less than 0.5 percent.

In previous research, Schanzenbach has uncovered compelling evidence of the benefits of food stamps, and their long-term benefits in particular. In a recent working paper, she and colleagues found that those exposed to food stamps early in life (before age 5) have measurably better health as adults. They had lower rates of obesity and metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

The study also showed the benefits extended beyond health to work outcomes. Women who benefitted from food stamps as children were more likely to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on the social safety net as adults than those who did not.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is associate professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.