Food Stamps Seen as Efficient, Can Improve Health

food stamps

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) faces $39 billion in cuts, despite evidence of long-term benefits.

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—and it is up on the budgetary chopping block.

On September 18, the House of Representatives passed a bill, mainly along party lines, to cut $39 billion from the program. Estimates are that the Republican-backed cut could lead to dropping 4 million of the nearly 47 million people who currently receive benefits by 2014. Tense congressional negotiations are expected, as the Democratic-led Senate passed a smaller $4 billion cut in its June farm bill.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Republican criticisms of SNAP revolve around rising program costs due to more enrollees and reduced work incentives. Democratic support draws from the program’s aim to help poor families avoid hunger and poor nutrition. Yet little is known about the program’s overall and long-term effects. Ongoing research by IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and her colleagues is providing some of the first direct evidence that poor families using food stamps can see substantial benefits, especially for newborns and their health. 

In their work, the researchers uncover positive short-term benefits, such as reducing poverty, in addition to long-term benefits to a person’s health and earnings.

“What we are finding is that the positive aspects of program, such as lifting families out of poverty and better adult health for those who were in the program as children, are being ignored in the funding debates,” Schanzenbach said. “Our research indicates that SNAP should be seen as an investment in human welfare—not a vicious welfare trap.”

In one study, she and Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley examined 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.      

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 impact was 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, result in a significant improvement in the health of newborns born to poor families.

In a recent working paper, the researchers re-examined the cohort, now between 30 and 50 years old, finding that those exposed to food stamps in early life, before age 5, have measurably better health in adulthood. They exhibited lower obesity rates and lower rates of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

The benefits also extended beyond health to work outcomes. Interestingly, 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.

“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 short- and long-term benefits—particularly 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. The working paper can be read here.

This article was originally published in 2011 and was updated in September 2013.