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off the charts

SNAP Linked to Better Health Throughout Life, Benefits for All Age Groups

We’ve discussed why food insecurity (lack of access to sufficient food) is linked to poor health and higher health costs — and how SNAP (formerly food stamps) reduces food insecurity and therefore may provide a path to better health. What’s more, those health benefits may last a lifetime: children receiving SNAP benefits early tend to have fewer obstacles to physical and mental development; adult recipients report better health; and seniors are less likely to cut back on medications due to cost, our new paper shows.

SNAP can help families afford a healthier diet, reduce the stress of not being able to afford adequate food, and free up income to spend on health. While evaluating SNAP’s exact impact on health is challenging, in part because people who choose to participate in the program are generally more disadvantaged than those who are eligible but don’t, rigorous research that controls for these differences has linked SNAP with improved health, both when participants receive benefits and later in life:

  • Adult SNAP participants are likelier to assess their own health as excellent or very good (see chart), as are parents who assess their child’s health. Adults have fewer sick days, visit the doctor less often, are less likely to forgo needed care because they can’t afford it, and are less likely to exhibit psychological distress.

  • Children receiving SNAP are less likely than low-income non-participants to be in fair or poor health or underweight, and their families are less likely to make tradeoffs between health care and other basic needs like food, housing, heating, and electricity.
  • Mothers who had SNAP during pregnancy gave birth to fewer low-birth-weight babies, researchers found when comparing the long-term outcomes of individuals in different areas of the country when SNAP expanded nationwide in the 1960s and early 1970s. Adults with access to SNAP in early childhood had lower risks of obesity and other conditions related to heart disease and diabetes.
  • An additional year of SNAP eligibility in the first years of a child’s life is associated with improvements in health outcomes between ages 6 and 16, according to a study that followed children of immigrants during a period when eligibility rules changed for their parents. Their parents reported these children in better health, and they had fewer overnight hospitalizations and doctor’s visits.
  • Elderly SNAP participants are less likely than similar non-participants to cut back on medications due to cost, for example by taking smaller doses or delaying a prescription, new research finds.