Cutting Food Stamps Is Just Bad Policy

Steve Sack / Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Cagle CartoonsThis Thanksgiving was tough for the estimated 22 percent of U.S. children under age 18 who are living in poverty. Not only do job prospects for their parents continue to be lackluster, but their elected leaders are debating how much additional food insecurity to inflict upon them.

Chief among the policies being debated by members of Congress this holiday season is the Farm Bill, which has for 50 years included funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Unfortunately, both Democrats and Republicans are seeking to cut the food stamp program, which assists 47 million people nationwide. In light of recent data showing the effects of poverty and food insecurity on children throughout the course of their lives, it is clear that U.S. policy with respect to food stamps is headed in the wrong direction.

Before Thanksgiving, Democratic and Republican leaders held a conference call to hammer out details about the Farm Bill, and their talks will continue this month. Democrats—who seem to have bought into the idea that the program should be cut at all—seek a $4 billion cut over ten years, while Republicans seek a $39 billion cut over the same period, a proposal that would essentially halve the program. This debate comes after an $11 billion cut that went into effect on November 1, marking the end of a recession-driven temporary increase to the food stamp benefit.

Poverty is defined by the federal government as a family of three earning less than $20,000; most food stamp recipients earn at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (about $24,800 a year for a three-person family in fiscal year 2013). Potential cuts to food stamps will have ramifications on children in poverty across the country. In California, for example, 3.6 million people rely on food stamps each month. According to California Food Policy Advocates, more than 60 percent of families receiving food stamps include children.

Food insecurity has consequences for school-age children. A 2005 study from Cornell University and the University of South Carolina found that children, particularly girls, from households that became food insecure between the time they were in kindergarten and third grade demonstrated poor reading performance. Children from food insecure homes were also found to experience overall poor performance in school, both academically and socially.

“The simplest way to put it is: Food stamp cuts hurt kids,” Matt Sharp, senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, told RH Reality Check. “And the cuts Congress is proposing are not being met with an increase in wages. It’s a political problem more than any other. There’s very little cost to operating food stamps, there are very few in the public who doubt the need for nutrition safety nets, and the program has enjoyed broad support from Americans. Until recently, it enjoyed popularity among elected officials too.”

The premise that food stamps should be cut has been accepted by members of Congress, even as a string of recent studies reveal the profound impact of poverty on children. Just last month, research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics revealed that early childhood poverty “weaves its way into the neural and biological infrastructure of the child in such a way as to impact developmental trajectories and outcomes.”

Another study published over the summer by scholars at the University of Michigan looked at the cognitive impact of poverty on children in adulthood. “The research suggests that people who grow up with the chronic stress of poverty have less ability to regulate their emotional reactions to various life stressors,” Dr. James Swain, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development and a lead researcher of the study, told RH Reality Check.

A third study published in Science over the summer found that “poverty directly impedes cognitive function.” The Atlantic Cities reported on this study, pointing out that “[e]xperiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That’s like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.”

Research also reveals how policies and programs that proactively aid people in poverty could strengthen their cognitive capacity. As the The Atlantic Cities also pointed out, “anti-poverty programs could have a huge benefit that we’ve never recognized before: Help people become more financially stable, and you also free up their cognitive resources to succeed in all kinds of other ways as well.”

There is also specific evidence of the role of food stamps in alleviating poverty. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that SNAP benefits can reduce the severity of poverty, and that they “have a particularly strong alleviative effect on poverty among children, who experience significantly higher rates of poverty than the overall population.”

But the data is not guiding policy making. In the current economic and political climate, it is mystifying why elected leaders believe food stamps should be cut at all. Both Democrats and Republicans are considering proposals to the Farm Bill that could cause short- and long-term food insecurity for U.S. children and adults living in poverty. In a better economy, in which overall wages were higher and job opportunities were not largely limited to low-wage options, a slight cut to food stamps may be reasonable. But in an economy like today’s, there is no basis for the argument that the food stamps program should be scaled down.

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