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IPR Director Testifies on SNAP Research Before Senate Committee

Economist Schanzenbach points to stabilizing benefits of ‘highly efficient’ program


Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach
Schanzenbach said SNAP is “a smart public investment that will improve both public health and economic growth.”

On September 14, IPR Director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist, testified before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee on Capitol Hill in a hearing to discuss nutrition programs covered by the 2018 Farm Bill.

In her opening statement, Schanzenbach, an expert on the short- and long-term effects of nutrition programs, discussed what current research, including her own, says about the benefits of SNAP and offered suggestions for improvements in the upcoming bill. 

SNAP, the nation’s largest food assistance program, kept more than 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2014, according to Schanzenbach. The program also serves a diverse population, with children, working adults, seniors, and the disabled constituting nearly 80 percent of its participants.

“It is efficiently targeted to families who need benefits the most,” Schanzenbach said, increasing their ability to buy and consume more nutritious food. She also emphasized the economic benefits of SNAP, citing a USDA estimate that every $5 in new SNAP benefits can generate as much as $9 of economic activity.

“A key reason for SNAP’s success is that it relies on the private sector to provide efficient access to food through grocery stores and other retail outlets,” Schanzenbach said. 

SNAP’s success is perhaps most evident in its long-term impact on children. Schanzenbach finds that those who had access to SNAP benefits during their childhood were 18 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, and grew up to be healthier.

“In other words, SNAP is not a ‘welfare trap,’ but instead we should think of it as an investment in children,” Schanzenbach said.

Following her testimony, she fielded questions from several committee members, including one from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–MI), the committee’s ranking minority member, on the importance of flexibility in providing food assistance. 

“Can you tell us a little bit more about what your research shows about participation and why it’s important SNAP is able to shrink as well as grow when there’s need?” Stabenow asked.

Schanzenbach responded, “SNAP was one of our most important programs during the Great Recession.” She pointed to research showing that it had more impact than any other potential spending increases or tax-cut policies and underscored its great flexibility in responding to economic conditions, in particular during long and deep downturns, like the last recession.

“Recall that it is the people on SNAP who are typically the first to lose their jobs and the last to get them back,” Schanzenbach said, noting that every dollar spent on SNAP stimulated the local economy. Speaking to proposed changes in the 2018 Farm Bill, she argued that turning SNAP into a program of block grants to states would “fundamentally undermine” this flexibility and its “timely stabilizing effect” on the wider economy.

Sen. John Boozman (R–AR) called attention to the way SNAP works in tandem with other federal nutrition programs, asking Schanzenbach about the effects of connecting SNAP and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). 

Schanzenbach said performance standards linking NSLP to SNAP have “done tremendous good” and have ensured that children have access to both sets of programs. She also encouraged the committee to consider implementing similar performance standards for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which faces a steep drop-off in enrollment for school-age children. She noted 85 percent of eligible infants are enrolled, but only 30 percent of eligible 4-year-olds participate in the program. 

“Establishing performance standards would help these very vulnerable children,” Schanzenbach said. 

In addition to Schanzenbach, the senators heard from the director of a Kentucky food bank, the president of an independent grocery chain in Alabama, and the head of a job training program for former inmates, all of whom rely on SNAP to serve their clients, as well as Bryan Parker, a Navy veteran and chef-in-training who had received SNAP.

Parker, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recounted how he found himself without a job in his late forties, living in a cheap motel, and struggling to find work and food.

“SNAP during this time was a lifesaver. It provided nutrition, it gave me hope,” Parker said in his emotional testimony about how the program helped him to get back on his feet.

Schanzenbach’s research suggests that Parker’s story is indicative of the wider positive impact of SNAP, which she described as “a smart public investment that will improve both public health and economic growth.” 

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is IPR director and Margaret Alexander Walker Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and of Economics.

Read her complete testimony. 

Watch the hearing.