Scared little boy eating

Food stamps mean fewer hungry kids

IOWA STATE (US) — The food stamp program in the US reduces food insecurity among high-risk children by at least 20 percent and poor general health by at least 35 percent, new research shows.

An extension of the current Farm Bill has delayed the debate over funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Nutrition programs, of which SNAP is the primary one, account for 75 percent of the funding in the Farm Bill.

Policymakers should consider the benefits of SNAP as part of the debate, says Brent Kreider, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, who studied how SNAP participation affects the well-being of children enrolled in the program.

“Our results suggest that SNAP is largely doing what it is intended to do—helping alleviate food insecurity—even though the impacts of public assistance programs cannot be discerned from the data alone.”

Kreider’s results, published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, are based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which assesses the health of adults and children through interviews and direct physical examinations.

The results are significant, Kreider says, because nearly half of all American children are expected to receive SNAP assistance at some point in their childhood. According to USDA statistics for 2012, more than 46 million Americans receive assistance through SNAP, with an average monthly benefit of $133 per person.

The study is the first to provide a unified statistical framework to address two data issues—missing counterfactuals and under-reported program participation—both associated with government entitlement programs.

“Our goal has been to develop methods that can credibly estimate causal ‘‘treatment effects’ across a wide range of government programs targeted toward low-income households,” Kreider says.

Because researchers must rely on surveys, like NHANES, there are factors they cannot accurately identify. As an example, Kreider says they cannot measure what motivates a parent to participate in the program. Additionally, the data, even if perfectly measured, can never reveal counterfactual outcomes.

“Logically, we never know how a child who received SNAP benefits would have fared in the absence of the program, or vice versa,” Kreider says. “Survey data often show that children participating in food assistance programs have worse health outcomes than observationally similar children who did not participate. But is that because the program is ineffective, or is it because higher risk children are enrolled in the program?”

Under-reported benefits?

There are also concerns about the reliability of self-reported survey data. Previous studies have found that SNAP benefits are under-reported by at least 12 percent, sometimes closer to 50 percent. Still, researchers rely on surveys for programs like SNAP, because it isn’t feasible to conduct randomized controlled trials.

“From a scientific standpoint, we’d ideally like to compare health outcomes among children who were randomly assigned into a government program with outcomes among children who were not assigned into the program,” Kreider says. “But randomly withholding public assistance from eligible children raises obvious ethical concerns.”

However, the new framework developed by Kreider and  colleagues, allows these issues tobe addressed. “Our methods do not allow us to pinpoint exact estimates of how SNAP affects children’s health, but we can provide informative ranges on average causal effects of the program,” he says.

Despite the inherent limitations of the data, they found that the program has been effective in improving the well-being of children.

The researchers also found evidence that SNAP reduces the prevalence of childhood obesity and anemia, but those results were not statistically significant.

Craig Gundersen, a former Iowa State professor of human development and family studies now at the University of Illinois, worked with Kreider on the study, along with John Pepper of the University of Virginia and Dean Jolliffe, World Bank.

Source: Iowa State University