Long-Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net (WP-12-17)
Hilary Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond
A growing economics literature establishes a causal link between in utero shocks and health and human capital in adulthood. Most studies rely on extreme negative shocks such as famine and pandemics. This working paper is the first to examine the impact of a positive and policy-driven change in economic resources available in utero and during childhood. In particular, the researchers focus on the introduction of a key element of the U.S. safety net, the Food Stamp Program, which was rolled out across counties in the United States between 1961 and 1975. They use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to assemble unique data linking family background and county of residence in early childhood to adult health and economic outcomes. The identification comes from variation across counties and over birth cohorts in exposure to the Food Stamp Program. Their findings indicate that the Food Stamp Program has effects decades after initial exposure. Specifically, access to food stamps in childhood leads to a significant reduction in the incidence of “metabolic syndrome” (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and, for women, an increase in economic self-sufficiency. Overall, the results suggest substantial internal and external benefits of the safety net that have not previously been quantified.