SNAP: An Investment in Our Children
As families across the United States sit down for the Thanksgiving feast, many others will struggle to afford even basic food on this holiday. For a lot of Americans, hunger is a constant concern. Food insecurity, and malnutrition and hunger with it, has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2012, one out of every six, or 49 million, Americans was food insecure.  The magnitude of food insecurity renders the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more important than ever. Given SNAP's significance, the $40 billion cut to the program proposed by House Republicans will only increase the number of vulnerable Americans.
It is easy to forget that hunger and malnutrition exist in America, and not only in the developing world. From the outside, a food insecure family looks like any other family on your block. However, they are regularly forced to make decisions that impact the quality of their lives. They trade off basic necessities such as housing, medical expenses, and food, unable to afford to cover all of the costs.  Food insecurity ranges from adults shifting to lower-quality, less-expensive food to the extreme of adults and children reducing actual food intake and experiencing physical hunger.  Particularly worrisome are the 15.9 million children  whose nutritional health is compromised by living in a food insecure household.
Map of child food insecurity in the US in 2011. Source: Feeding America "Map the Meal Gap."
The negative impact of malnutrition on young children’s cognitive and physical development has been well documented. Nutritional deficiencies that arise in children in utero and between the ages of zero to three not only affect childhood growth but also have permanent consequences for their health into adulthood. Any exposure to insufficient nutrient intake during this crucial window is related to lower adult height and weight. Additionally, childhood food insecurity is linked to obesity and coronary heart disease later in life.  Lastly, hunger in young children is correlated with lower cognitive abilities  and worse academic performance.  This is detrimental to their human capital formation and leads to lost productivity and lifetime earnings. Failure to address child hunger and its harmful consequences that impact an entire lifetime further entrenches the effects.
This issue is relevant at the societal level. Given the scope of this problem, SNAP's progress in combating child hunger nationwide is commendable. SNAP, an in-kind government assistance program whose objective is to reduce food insecurity in poor households, successfully aids hungry children. In 2011, 49% of all SNAP recipients were children,  amounting to 22 million, or almost one in every three, children in America. Preschool aged children (four years old and below) made up 16% of SNAP beneficiaries.  Seventy-six percent of SNAP benefits go towards households with children.
Not only do the majority of SNAP benefits assist children, data show the program effectively reduces food insecurity. A longitudinal study shows that a six-month participation in SNAP decreased food insecurity in households with children by 10.1%  Another report finds that very low food security in households after a two-year SNAP participation drops by 45% compared to those who left SNAP prior to the beginning of the study.  Given SNAP's strong ameliorative effects and efficient targeting of children, it is an important social safety net for children across America.
A study by University of California--Berkeley economics professor Hilary Hoynes  looked at the health and economic outcome of adults who had access to SNAP’s precursor, the food stamps program (FSP), during their childhood. The results show a strong correlation between exposure to FSP while in utero and early childhood with a decreased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Additionally, increased FSP participation in early childhood was linked to significantly increased adulthood economic self-sufficiency (higher educational attainment, earnings, and decreased welfare participation) of women. The study’s findings attest to how SNAP benefits families in the present and is also an investment in the future well-being of individuals and communities. Since the cost-benefit analysis of SNAP is based on real-time outcomes and doesn’t take into account its future private and social multiplier benefits, Hoynes posits that the investment in the child social safety net is actually undervalued. If anything, we should expand the scope of SNAP.
As we celebrate the holidays with our loved ones, there are many things for which we can be thankful. In remembering what we have in our lives, we are reminded of those who have less. By supporting SNAP, a program that continues to uplift children for years to come, we can work toward a future where families all across the country gather and celebrate the bounty that’s on their dining room table and in their lives.
* Peiley Lau is a 2013 Intern Scholar at the Oakland Institute.
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