BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Access to SNAP (formerly food stamps), the nation’s key food assistance program, during pregnancy and early childhood can improve health — and, for girls, economic well-being—in adulthood, leading economist Hilary Hoynes says in an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Her comments, based on her groundbreaking research, are particularly relevant in light of President Trump’s proposal to cut SNAP by $193 billion over ten years. Other economic security programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage workers have similar lasting effects for children, Hoynes explains.
In the first analysis of the “protective effects” (or long-run benefits) of SNAP, Hoynes and colleagues Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond examined what happened as the federal government gradually introduced food stamps across the country, county by county, in the 1960s and early 1970s. They concluded that adults who grew up in counties with access to food stamps reported better health and lower rates of “metabolic syndrome” — a combined measure of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes — than otherwise-similar children born in counties that hadn’t yet implemented the program. Food stamps may generate these improvements by reducing poor nutrition in early childhood, which has been linked with a lifelong shift in the body’s metabolism when it tries to adapt to — or protect itself from — enduring food shortages.
The study also found that high school completion rates rose dramatically — by a full 18 percentage points — for children growing up in a county with food stamps. And, women with access to food stamps as young children reported improved “economic self-sufficiency” in adulthood, based on a combined measure of employment, income, poverty status, high school graduation, and program participation. These findings show that SNAP can help young girls, in particular, not only obtain adequate food but also break the cycle of economic hardship.
SNAP isn’t the only income support program that boosts children’s ability to succeed over the long run. A robust set of studies find that the EITC, which supplements earnings and offsets taxes for low-income working families, can boost children’s school achievement, chances of attending college, and health outcomes. By promoting work and boosting incomes — especially among single mothers — the EITC lowers poverty. As Hoynes explains, the EITC:
has a very powerful effect on transitioning people from out-of-work to in-work. And in so doing, it lowers poverty rates, not just because you’re giving households a tax refund at the end of the year . . . but just as important is the fact that by encouraging work, earnings go up in the household, and that also reduces poverty.
Research from Hoynes and others sheds light on what public investments are working well to help children succeed today and tomorrow. It also suggests that the draconian cuts in economic security programs that President Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed would increase poverty and hardship in the short run, which would likely damage children over the long run.