NEWS 2011

Food Stamps Seen as Efficient, Can Improve Health

Food Stamps image
Vintage food stamps

The federal food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of the nation’s largest transfer programs to the poor. As of May, more than 44 million low-income Americans were receiving food stamps, the most ever.

While Congress considers funding cuts to the program, little is known about the program’s overall effects. Research by IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and her colleagues provides some of the first direct evidence that poor families using food stamps can see substantial benefits, especially for newborns and their health.

In one study, she and Hilary Hoynes of the University of California at Davis examine how families changed their food-buying habits once food stamps were introduced in their county. Program adoption began in 1963, finishing in 1975.

Participating families sharply increased their food spending when the program was introduced—improving nutrition at a time when many of the poor suffered from hunger. The study also found that participants spent the benefits in the same way they would have spent an equivalent cash transfer. This suggests that food stamps are an economically efficient safety net program, providing empirical support for economic theory.

Though the program’s main goal is to improve nutrition for America’s poor, most research on food stamps has been unable to establish a strong causal link to improved health outcomes. In a related project, Schanzenbach, Hoynes, and Douglas Almond of Columbia University link the date the program was introduced in a particular county to data on pregnancy, birth weights, and neonatal deaths.

Diane Schanzenbach

Diane Whitmore

Their findings reveal that the introduction of food stamps led to improved infant health—an increase in birth weights and a decline in infant mortality. The impacts were largest among the frailest babies, reducing low-weight births by 7 percent for whites and between 5 and 11 percent for blacks.

Overall, food stamp benefits, which average around $200 per household per month, show a significant improvement in the health of newborns born to poor families. In a new working paper, the researchers re-examined the cohort, now around 40 years old, finding that those exposed to food stamps in early life have measurably better health in adulthood.

“In these difficult times of budget cuts and fiscal wrangling, it’s crucial for policymakers to have information that allows them to gauge the program’s program’s short- and long-term benefits, in particular for children, measured across a wide variety of outcomes,” Schanzenbach said.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor of human development and social policy and IPR fellow. The studies were published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics and the Review of Economics and Statistics.

Photo by LK Kossoff/LK Photos.
Image of vintage food stamps by NCReedplayer, Flickr.