Diane Schanzenbach on White House Panel: Food Stamp Program 'Investment, Not Charity'

Diane Schanzenbach on White House Panel: Food Stamp Program 'Investment, Not Charity'

Diane Schanzenbach

The federal food stamp program has a strong impact on health, education and economic self-sufficiency, according to leading economist and SESP associate professor Diane Schanzenbach. She presented her findings during a White House panel on child hunger in America on January 27. Adults who received assistance from the federal food stamp program as children were healthier and less likely to use “safety net” programs than those from similar backgrounds who did not, according to her research.

The White House meeting, "A Conversation about Child Hunger in America," also featured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Cecilia Muñoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, along with other researchers. Participants addressed the impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other nutrition programs aimed at reducing childhood hunger and poverty.

Schanzenbach pointed out the important long-term effects of food stamps not only on food security for children but also long-term on health and education. In fact, her research shows that SNAP increased high school graduation rates by 18 percent. "SNAP helps kids come to school ready to learn and make the best use of the assets that society is providing them," Schanzenbach stated. "We found, in sharp contrast to the idea of a 'culture of dependency,' that making sure kids had adequate benefits in childhood meant they could do better in adulthood." For that reason, she refers to food stamps as "investments, not charity."

"The benefits to these investments are broader that we previously thought," Schanzenbach added. She noted the positive long-term effects on health and economic self-sufficiency that her research validated. In addition, Schanzenbach pointed out that the food stamp program "responds quickly when a family has a shock," in contrast to other policies such as the Enarned Income Tax Credit that are slower to have impact. Schanzenbach also referred to the SNAP program as an important "economic multiplier." In terms of how best to spend funds for economic stimulus, SNAP stands out as the number one way of getting money out there and spent quickly. 

Schanzenbach's research, summarized in "The Safety Net as Investment," suggests that SNAP has a large impact on children and that benefits carry over into adulthood, especially when implemented during key developmental periods. Policy highlights of the paper include the following:

• Not only does SNAP improve food security in the short run, it also helps prevent negative, long-term and lasting effects of deprivation during childhood.

• Long-term improvement in health due to the program implies a decrease in future taxpayer costs for health care. “Additionally, by increasing self-sufficiency, SNAP today can reduce the future costs of the safety net down the line and also increase tax revenues,” according to the brief.

• Findings suggest that “the SNAP benefits that go to children are better thought of as an investment rather than a charity.”

“The Safety Net as Investment” was coauthored with Hilary Hoynes, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Schanzenbach also is director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in Brookings’ Economic Studies program. She studies issues related to child poverty, including education policy, child health, and food consumption. Much of her research on poverty, achievement in schools and hunger investigates the longer-run impacts of early life experiences.

Read the brief “The Safety Net as Investment.”
Read Schanzenbach’s take on “Do Food Stamps Discourage Work?

By Julie Deardorff and Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/4/16