Children who have access to the federal food stamp program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — in the earliest years of their lives have better health and economic outcomes later in life depending on their gender, according to a new academic study of the government safety net by professors Hilary Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond.
Across genders, children whose mothers had access to food stamps during pregnancy and in their earliest years were less likely to have long-term health problems like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure in adulthood. Women who had similar access, meanwhile, are more likely to become economically self-sufficient as adults, the study found:
We find that access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, income, and decreases in welfare participation).
Because nutrition is especially important for long-term development early in life, the positive effects of food stamps are especially strong for children who benefit from the program before birth and up to the age of five. The long-term developmental effects begin to subside after that age, though there are still obvious positive nutritional effects for children who remain on the program after that.
The food stamp program is especially vital in times of economic downturn or famine, the researchers wrote, since children can be exposed to lower food levels that jeopardize future development. Food stamp enrollment in the United States grew to 15 million households in 2011, according to government figures released Wednesday. The program’s growth during and after the Great Recession has come under the scrutiny of budget-cutters in Congress, even as it helps keep millions of Americans out of poverty each year.