That, in essence, is the finding of one of the largest studies of its kind on what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Since being nationally mandated in 1975, SNAP has remained the largest national anti-hunger program: last year along, more than 40 million poor working families, people with disabilities and seniors received assistance averaging to about $125 monthly; 70 percent live in households with children.
Whatever the moral case for supporting SNAP, there is certainly an economic one, as one of the largest studies of its kind recently proved.
The economists focus on people born between 1956 and 1981, who were young children when the program was expanding, and who grew up in families with a parent with less than a high school education. They find that access to the program as a young child significantly improved economic outcomes and health status as an adult.
In particular, food stamp access as a child was associated with much lower risk of metabolic syndrome as an adult and, especially for women, higher levels of educational attainment and income along with lower participation on means-tested benefit programs. For example, food stamp access during childhood is linked to a 5 percentage point reduction in heart disease and an 18 percentage point increase in high school completion rates, compared to those who lacked access.
This evidence contradicts some critiques of food stamps, which misleadingly argue that it’s an inefficient and ineffective program.
The authors also highlight that access seems to matter most in utero and up until age 5. Gaining access to food stamps after age 5, by contrast, didn’t improve health outcomes as an adult, perhaps because the person had already been put on a particular health trajectory by that age.
As typical in such studies, there is a question of “correlation versus causation”, but the gradual rollout of SNAP allowed the researchers to account for this because “children living in otherwise similar families either did or didn’t receive benefits depending on whether their county voluntarily participated at the time. (The researchers show that county choice seems to be unrelated to other factors that may have substantially affected children living there.)”
The study also demonstrates the importance of taking a long-term view of these sorts of programs, especially when children are involved. Various other studies suggest that investing in the formative early years of one’s life pays huge dividends later; that is obviously lost on those who focus only during the year the benefit is received.