Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

SPRING 2014

Food insecurity has worsened recently for families at most income levels, according to Diane Schanzenbach’s research.

Food insecurity has worsened recently for families at most income levels, according to Diane Schanzenbach’s research.

Kids’ Health and Food Stamps: is There a Connection?


By Marilyn Sherman
computer modeling

For a family that struggles to put meals on the table, the long-range outlook for children dims. If kids miss meals, they may have difficulty paying attention in school, and over time their health may suffer. This situation sends SESP associate professor Diane Schanzenbach into action. She’s determined to track down the policies that are most effective for keeping kids healthy and encouraging them to grow up as productive adults.

Food stamps are the nation’s primary weapon for fighting hunger and poor nutrition — both of which can ravage child health and learning. One-fourth of U.S. children live in households that receive food stamps. However, until recently, the long-term health impact of food stamps was unproven, and the question remained: “Is spending on food stamps a cost-effective policy for health?”

FINDINGS ON FOOD STAMPS

Now research by Schanzenbach, an economist, clarifies the connection between food stamps and health. In a recent study Schanzenbach found that food stamps lead to better health for children, even long-term into adulthood. In addition, women whose parents received food stamps achieved greater economic self-sufficiency as adults than women who were equally poor but whose families did not receive food stamps.

In their groundbreaking study, Schanzenbach with Hilary Hoynes of the University of California–Berkeley and Douglas Almond of Columbia University investigated the impact of food stamps by comparing different counties during the time the United States rolled out its food stamp program from 1961 to 1975. Their longitudinal study tracked thousands of children into the 1980s.

They discovered that children who were in utero when their families received food stamps were more likely to have healthy birth weights, a primary predictor of long-term health. Moreover, children whose families had access to the food stamp program continued to be healthier into adulthood, when they were less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes and obesity.

“It’s exciting that we can trace the long-term impacts of making sure kids have enough resources in early life,” says Schanzenbach of her research, which has been featured in prominent media outlets from the New York Times to CBS and Financial Times. “Previously, we didn’t have much evidence of the long-term impact of policy on people’s lives.”

EARLY LIFE MATTERS

The early life angle is a key piece for Schanzenbach, an expert on education and health policy. “This study fits the profile in the literature that early interventions are setting people up for a lifetime of health,” she says. “We know that early life is a very sensitive period for intervention. Interventions are very cost-effective in early life.”

Beyond health, the researchers also found that food stamps lead to financial independence. Women whose families had access to the food stamp program when they were children were more likely to finish high school, be employed and avoid government assistance than women whose families hadn’t been in the program.

“In other words, instead of creating a ‘culture of government dependence,’ the program allows children to concentrate on learning so that they are less likely to need to rely on the safety net during adulthood,” asserts Schanzenbach.

In general, Schanzenbach gives the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), high marks for being “a very well- designed program, fundamental to the safety net.” SNAP is intended to temporarily supplement a family’s resources to buy groceries, she notes.

Still, Schanzenbach sees ample room for improvement. In her recent report for the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, she recommends adding subsidies for fruits and vegetables as a cost-effective way to improve health for low-income Americans. She also advises formula adjustments that can make the food stamp program more targeted, as well as tradeoffs to control costs. Schanzenbach met with policy makers in Washington, D.C., to discuss her recommendations.

GROWING HUNGER

Despite the successes of the food stamp program, Schanzenbach is acutely concerned that “food insecurity” has spiked since the recession. Related to hunger, food insecurity is an official U.S. Department of Agriculture measure of whether families have consistent access to nutritious foods. In real terms, it means children are missing meals and going hungry, putting them at risk for poor health.

Currently almost 21 percent of households with children under 18 are classified as food insecure. “Research suggests food insecurity would be even higher had government action not purposely expanded the SNAP program through the stimulus package,” she notes.

Schanzenbach and her colleagues have been studying food insecurity for several years now. “We’re still trying to understand the causes of food insecurity during the Great Recession and overall — let alone the consequences,” she says. Growing food insecurity may stem from the double whammy of job loss plus the loss of tax credits, which can hit single-parent families especially hard. Also, shrinking access to credit may have curtailed a critical safeguard, and food and energy prices have climbed faster than prices for less essential goods.

Food insecurity doesn’t necessarily correspond directly to the poverty rate, according to Schanzenbach’s analysis. During the recession, food insecurity rose even for people whose poverty level didn’t worsen and even for people at income levels up to 250 percent of the poverty level, her research shows. “The Great Recession had a terrible impact,” she maintains.

One puzzle to Schanzenbach is why some low- income people can buffer themselves against poverty while others cannot. She points to factors including “temporary shocks,” such as a car breakdown. Another factor is mental health. A mother’s depression can determine whether a low-income family has food on the table during tough economic times, she notes.

In any event, a growing economy is the only sure-fire cure for food insecurity, according to Schanzenbach. Like many other economists, she emphasizes the need for a strong economic recovery in the U.S. More jobs and a more vigorous economy can ensure that food stamps and hungry children fade out of the family picture — replaced by regular meals and healthy kids.

DIANE SCHANZENBACH: IMPROVING CHILD HEALTH POLICIES

DIANE SCHANZENBACH

Troubled by child hunger and dedicated to child health, Diane Schanzenbach has been researching health policy issues for more than a decade. For example, her research on the nutrition of school lunches factored into improved federal school lunch guidelines a few years ago.

Currently Schanzenbach is assessing the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which subsidizes a school breakfast for children living in poverty. Her analysis of a randomized controlled experiment discovered only a tiny impact, and even a negative consequence of possible obesity if children eat two breakfasts because of the program. “Policy gets tricky,” says Schanzenbach.

Child obesity is a frequent subject of her policy research. For example, she studied the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind law, finding that the policy had unintended consequences for child health. When schools were on the line for the law’s sanctions, they sometimes cut recess to make time for academics. Then child obesity rose.

The good news occurs when research shows a cost-effective policy can lessen hunger, boost nutrition and ensure good health. In pursuit of that goal, Schanzenbach is pleased to continue her rigorous longitudinal research that can contribute to the nation’s health policy. She explains, “To assess impacts on health, you need long-term data, which is why historical research is so important.”