The Food Stamps program (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s and has remained a crucial part of the U.S. social safety net since then. Using the supplemental poverty measure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in the wake of the Great Recession, in 2009, SNAP reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent. Currently the program serves nearly 47 million Americans.
At RSF, Visiting Scholar Hilary Hoynes (UC Berkeley) is studying the medium- and long-term effects of the U.S. safety net for families with children, focusing on SNAP, or food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In a new interview with the foundation, she discussed some of her ongoing research on how early-life exposure to food stamps affects adult health and economic outcomes, including employment, earnings, occupation, and poverty status.
Q. Your current research examines some of the long-term effects of childhood exposure to food stamps (now SNAP), a program which began in the 1960s. How were you able to track food stamp recipients and measure the impact of the program on their adult outcomes?
Hoynes: Tracing out the long run effects of policies that were implemented in the 1960s and 1970s means, of course, looking at what has happened to the beneficiaries of that policy. The missing piece in the study is that I don’t have information on which individuals in my sample actually participated in food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s. But we do have very clear dates for when food stamps were rolled out across different counties in the U.S. We also have very clear information from the USDA on how many people participated in food stamps in the months and years after the program was implemented in a particular county.
This allows me to use a reduced form analysis in order to indirectly examine the effects of the policy. That is to say, I can look at variation in the timing of the implementation of food stamps across different places in the U.S. along with the information we have on adults who are now in their fifties and sixties. Because of the longitudinal nature of this dataset, I know what kind of families these adults were born into—including where that family lived and their parents’ education level and income. This information allows me to proxy for the likelihood of the family receiving food stamps.
And we can then look at the the health conditions and economic well-being of these adults today and try to draw a connection between their childhood exposure to food stamps and their outcomes.
Q. You found that exposure to food stamps in early childhood improved adult outcomes, in terms of lowering rates of metabolic syndrome and increasing economic self-sufficiency. Why is early childhood such a critical time to receive social safety net benefits?
Just prior to the rollout of food stamps, populations in many poor areas in the U.S. (such as the Appalachian region and the Mississippi Delta area) struggled with defined hunger and high levels of nutritional deficiencies, including deficiencies of iron and other essential minerals. Scientific evidence has shown that when individuals experience poor nutrition in utero and in early life, they’re more likely to develop metabolic syndrome—or obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and so on—in their forties and fifties. Research on famines and other severe contractions of nutrition that occur in specific geographic pockets have also found that the children who survive these difficult times end up at higher risk for metabolic syndrome in adulthood.
So, drawing from this prior evidence, our hypothesis was that providing food stamps to families with young children could reduce the probability of those children developing metabolic syndrome in adulthood. And that’s exactly what we found—for lowering risk of metabolic syndrome, it looks as though exposure to food stamps really makes difference for children between conception and preschool. Our data shows a remarkable pattern: the more time that food stamps were available in a young child’s county, the less likely they are to develop metabolic syndrome in adulthood.
The timing of exposure to food stamps doesn’t seem to be quite as significant in terms of adults’ economic self-sufficiency—which encompasses things like education, earnings, and risk of being poor. We did find an interesting pattern whereby women who had greater exposure to food stamps in childhood had greater economic self-sufficiency later in life; yet, for men, we find only a very small, statistically insignificant effect. We don’t know quite yet what to make of this gender split—it’s something that definitely warrants further research.
Q. Although food stamps have remained a consistent part of our social safety net, policymakers such as Paul Ryan have suggested converting SNAP into block grants. Is there anything about the way that SNAP is structured—that is, as a federal entitlement—that has helped produce better outcomes for its recipients? What kinds of changes to SNAP, or new policy measures, might help increase the beneficial long-term effects of the program?
The kind of research that I’m doing—that is, research that traces how access to certain resources in early life affects adult outcomes—is a relatively new line of inquiry. We did find these strong results for food stamps, but there aren’t a lot of other studies of this type out there.
However, there is one study that looks even further back in time to a policy called the Mothers’ Pension Program, which was essentially the beginning of cash welfare in the early part of the twentieth century. In this study, the researchers went through old records in state archives and found the names of people who had applied for this assistance, along with records noting which of these people (for whatever reason) had been denied. They then traced these applicants through decennial censuses over the twentieth century, and found that the individuals who had received this cash benefit had greater economic self-sufficiency, and much lower rates of mortality, than those who had not. I bring this up because my instinct is that these benefits are not unique to food stamps. I think these studies tell us something about income, and the importance of raising incomes for poor families—particularly those with small children because of how crucial that stage of early life is.
The fact that SNAP is a federal entitlement is important, because it means that the program is larger and able to reach more people than it would if it were block granted. It also means that the program has remained relatively stable over time—we haven’t put additional restrictions on it such as work requirements. And while many elements of our current social safety net are categorically tied to certain groups—most notably, children, the elderly, and the disabled—part of why SNAP has been so powerful is that it’s very universal—if you’re poor, you get access to food stamps. Additionally entitlement programs serve as an “automatic stabilizer” in recessions – as need for the programs rise, there are funds available to serve that need. This is good for the needy families and good for the macroeconomy, serving to help increase aggregate demand.
If we look at what happened with block-granting welfare, it seems safe to say that block-granting SNAP would significantly shrink the program, and would allow states to find ways to use the funds toward other ends, which means at the end of the day, there will be far fewer resources in the pockets of the needy. And that is the real challenge and risk in restructuring food stamps and our social safety net more broadly.