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SNAP and WIC Help Young Children Now and in the Future

February 27, 2017 at 2:00 PM

The federal budget season will soon begin, so it’s a good time to remind policymakers about the research showing how important SNAP (food stamps) and WIC are for children, many of whom face the dual risks of poverty and food insecurity. One in five children live in poverty; one in six live in families that have trouble putting enough food on the table.

Nutrition assistance programs play an especially important role for young children, whose brains are rapidly developing. Unfortunately, young children are likelier to live in poor and food-insecure families than older children and are particularly vulnerable to the impact.

SNAP and WIC serve all eligible families that apply, so they reach a large share of very young children — nearly one in three children under age 5. Their nutritional support lessens the impact of hardship in early childhood and improves health and economic stability into adulthood:

Less food insecurity. Though SNAP benefits are modest (roughly $1.35 per person per meal among families with children), they enable low-income households to spend more on food than their limited budgets would otherwise allow, raising the likelihood that they’ll have enough to eat. Recent research shows that participating in SNAP lowers food insecurity and participating in WIC lowers food insecurity among children.

Better diets. WIC provides healthy foods tailored to meet the nutrient needs of mothers and their children during pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy, and childhood. Recent research suggests that participating in WIC boosts the iron density of preschoolers’ diets, reduces consumption of fat and added sugars, and improves adherence to the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Improved birth outcomes. Mothers with access to SNAP during pregnancy gave birth to fewer low birth-weight babies than otherwise-similar mothers without access, researchers found when they compared the long-term outcomes of people in different areas of the country when SNAP (then known as food stamps) gradually expanded nationwide. Also, studies consistently show that WIC increases birth weight. And a recent study found that receiving WIC benefits during pregnancy lowers the risks of premature birth and infant mortality.

Better health. Adults who’d had access to food stamps as young children reported better health and had lower rates of “metabolic syndrome” (a combined measure of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes), one study found. Also, low-income children participating in WIC have immunization rates comparable to more affluent children and much higher than low-income children not participating in WIC.

Stronger educational prospects. Research suggests that participating in SNAP can lead to improvements in reading and math skills among elementary school children, especially young girls, and boost their chances of graduating from high school by as much as 18 percentage points. New research also links prenatal and early childhood participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic achievement.

Stronger economic prospects. Women who’d had access to SNAP as young children reported improved economic self-sufficiency (using a combined measure of employment, income, poverty status, high school graduation, and receipt of public benefits), one study found. And recent research suggests that children who participated in WIC during early childhood may have better economic stability as adults.

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