Access to Food Stamps in Early Childhood Leads to Better Adult Health and Economic Outcomes

January 03, 2013

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

We already knew that food stamp benefits (now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) reduce poverty and improve children's health. A new National Bureau on Economic Research paper finds that having access to food stamps in early childhood also has positive effects on adult outcomes years later, including health and economic self-sufficiency.

The study takes advantage of the fact that the Food Stamp program was not implemented at the same time nationwide, but was rolled out an a county-by-county basis between 1962 and 1975. This allows the researchers to compare the adult outcomes of disadvantaged children who were born in counties where food stamps were available to those of disadvantaged children from counties where the program had not been implemented when they were children.  

As shown in the figure below, adults for whom food stamps were fully in place from the time of conception had lower rates of "metabolic syndrome" (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease) than those who did not have access to food stamps during early childhood. Those who had access to food stamps for a portion of their childhood had intermediate rates of metabolic syndrome.

The researchers also found a significant impact on self reports of "good health" and on economic self-sufficiency as the child becomes an adult, measured by educational attainment, income and earnings along with poverty and public assistance participation. Interestingly, the economic self-sufficiency impacts were only statistically significant for women. The researchers do not have information on the mechanisms by which these impacts were achieved, but suggest that it is likely to be a combination of nutritional effects and reduced parental stress, especially while the child was in utero.

Expanding resources in early childhood provides long term positive benefits in health, nutrition and anti-poverty outcomes. As lawmakers consider SNAP funding, CLASP urges them to keep in mind that the availability of food stamp benefits will not just reduce poverty and hunger today, but also improve health and well-being for years to come.

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