BU Today


POV: Starving Out Food Stamps

We shouldn’t gut a program that works


“POV,” a new addition to BU Today, is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp Program), has been placed on the chopping block by House Republicans, who just pushed through a bill that would cut $40 billion from the program over the next 10 years.

SNAP acts as a vaccine against food insecurity and hunger. Food insecurity is the measure of households’ inability to get enough healthful food in socially acceptable ways for all its members to live active, healthy lives. It is the food access threshold for serious, harmful health effects at all stages of life, from the womb to old age. Our research consortium, Children’s HealthWatch, has for more than a decade accumulated data on the impacts of food insecurity and interventions to decrease food insecurity among low-income babies and young children.

These youngest Americans and their families are at highest risk of food insecurity. Infants and young children in the first three years of life, the most critical period for the growth of the body and brain, are the most physiologically vulnerable to lasting ill effects of food insecurity on health and learning. They also are less likely to be considered in state and federal legislative debates about policies that affect their well-being.

In the 14 years since the food security measures were developed, a substantial body of peer-reviewed research literature has documented strong relationships between food insecurity and negative physical and mental health outcomes in children and adults. Our research, and that of many others, has convinced us that food insecurity—which affects approximately 16 million US children (21.6 percent)—is one of the greatest public health threats that our nation faces.

Young children in food-insecure households are in worse health, more likely to have been hospitalized since birth, more likely to be iron-deficient, and more likely to be at risk for learning and behavior problems than their food-secure peers. SNAP is the most important and effective public health program we have for reducing these health impacts of food insecurity.

SNAP is also our nation’s most important “counter-cyclical” antipoverty program, meaning it responds promptly to economic downturns, thus sustaining the economy, and more important, the health of our children. It has been estimated that every $1 in SNAP benefits generates between $1.72 and $1.79 in domestic economic activity.

Approximately 47 million Americans, including 900,000 in Massachusetts, receive SNAP. In 2011, 69 percent of SNAP benefits went to households with children; one in four American children depend on this “kitchen table” benefit, which unlike any other government nutrition program except for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides resources only to purchase food for consumption at home, rather than at school or in other group settings.

The poverty threshold for an average family of four with two children was $22,811 in 2011. That year, 83 percent of households receiving SNAP had incomes below the poverty threshold and 43 percent had incomes at or below 50 percent of the threshold.

SNAP successfully targets Americans living in poverty, but it is important to remember that many of those recipients are in poverty even while they struggle to earn a living. More than 60 percent of SNAP-recipient families with children have adults working for pay. Others, because of their health or age, cannot realistically participate in the workforce; 83 percent of benefits go to families with a child or an elderly or disabled member.

SNAP benefits, when received by pregnant women, are associated with decreased rates of low birth weight. In households with children, SNAP reduces the risk of food insecurity, enhances intake of B vitamins, iron, and calcium, and lowers the risk of anemia, obesity, poor health, hospitalization for failure to thrive, low academic test scores, and reports for child abuse or neglect. In so doing, SNAP not only makes life much better for children and families, it also saves society money.

In spite of this strong medical evidence, intense efforts are being made to cripple or kill SNAP by claiming that as a nation we cannot afford to nourish our impoverished fellow Americans. The recently passed bill would make several destructive changes to the $80 billion a year program. It would require SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 50 without minor children to get a job or enroll in a job-training program; it would place benefits to those people on a three-month timer; it would restrict people on other social welfare programs from automatically becoming eligible for SNAP; and it would allow states to require that recipients be tested for drugs. Yet many middle class and wealthier Americans benefit from mortgage tax deductions, which are also a subsidy. The private emergency food network, made up of food banks, food pantries, and similar organizations, is an important and necessary response to immediate food needs, but it does not have the resources or infrastructure to address a problem of the magnitude and chronic nature of food insecurity.

Even before the proposed draconian cuts, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found SNAP benefit levels too low to fully prevent food insecurity and the resulting impacts on health for recipient families. Current maximum benefit levels provide just $1.60 per meal per person, and even these meager benefits are scheduled to decline to $1.40 per meal on November 1, 2013. That cut will result from the premature termination of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which boosted benefits during the worst of the recent recession. The average family of four will lose 21 meals per month.

Current policy trends thus portend an increasing epidemic of food insecurity and all its negative health effects. Proposals even more alarming than the 13 percent cut imposed by the ARRA rollback are being advanced in the House of Representatives, with incalculable risk to the nation’s health.

As health researchers, we cannot remain silent about these totally preventable threats to the health and learning ability of America’s children. SNAP is one of America’s most cost-effective and successful public health programs. It is the best vaccine we have against food insecurity and its health consequences, but like all vaccines it must be provided at therapeutic doses to all susceptible individuals if it is to effectively protect the health of our nation.

John Cook, an economic demographer and a School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics, can be reached at john.cook@bmc.org. Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba (SPH’03), director of policy and advocacy at Children’s HealthWatch, can be reached at sedc@bu.edu. Justin Pasquariello, the executive director of Children’s HealthWatch, can be reached at justin.pasquariello@bmc.org. Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrician, founder of Children’s HealthWatch, and a School of Medicine professor, can be reached at dafrank@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


10 Comments on POV: Starving Out Food Stamps

  • N. Klein on 09.24.2013 at 7:24 am

    Hear, hear. Thanks for this.

  • Robert Jones on 09.24.2013 at 9:34 am

    “It would require SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 50 without minor children to get a job or enroll in a job-training program…”

    So, we should create a system of perpetual government-dependent welfare? No reason at all to try and reduce SNAP costs by encouraging self-sufficiency I guess.

    This article makes a lot of bold unsupported assertions throughout. Even if we are to accept the author’s premise that “food security” is this black and white issue without nuance, the contradictions beat you over the head.

    At one point the author claims it is important to remember some people are working and receiving SNAP with family members that are too old to work. Later, he goes on to dismiss getting adults 18-50 without minor children into the workforce as Draconian.

    I’m sorry, but this article was as poorly executed as the current state of SNAP. Would be nice to see at least the slightest recognition of nuance here.

    • nathan on 09.25.2013 at 3:28 pm

      I can understand that some people have no compassion for the poor affected, most of whom fall into the categories of children, elderly, disabled, mentally retarded and emotionally unstable.

      I can’t understand why they refuse to accept an economically efficient approach to keeping them from dying on their doorsteps and stealing their peoperty to survive.

      I also can’t understand why sociopaths lacking basic human compassion are allowed to participate in government.

      I suspect that this poster probably feels no shame in encouraging the government to stop feeding the poor. He should.

    • Allison on 09.29.2013 at 4:33 pm

      I don’t think the authors of this piece are advocating against self-sufficiency. In fact, I think that most people receiving SNAP hope to achieve economic independence, but need a little assistance along the way.

      In fact, in 1996 conservative lawmakers offered an amendment to the welfare bill limiting food stamps for unemployed 18-50 years who were out of work. Failing to comply with the workfare or job training regulations within 3 months would result in being cut off of SNAP. Many states, however, cannot run large enough workfare or training programs to accommodate this requirement. Therefore, governors were allowed to seek waivers for areas where unemployment was particularly high and jobs were not available so that people would not be cut off of food stamps. Both conservative and liberal governors have requested these waivers over the years, especially at times of high unemployment. The bill that passed the House removes the provision that enables governors to apply for such waivers. This means that no matter how bad the job market is in a particular locale, people will be cut off of SNAP for failing to find a job.

      This is Draconian and just another attack against our nation’s hungry and poor.

  • Mark on 09.24.2013 at 9:56 am

    Agree 100%.

  • kitty on 09.24.2013 at 8:58 pm

    Why don’t we really take care of AMERICANS, and assure that these benefits go only to those who are in the United States legally? There would be no need to reduce or eliminate the benefits of this program if costs were contained. The fact is that illegal immigrants return to their homelands when they are not able to take advantage of US government subsidies; they have families there and have been sending home US dollars as long as they have been here.

    This is not cruel or unreasonable; it is what each of the countries from which our illegals come do with respect to those illegally in their countries. If we want to feed our hungry children, stop feeding those who have not entered our country legally.

  • Missy on 01.10.2014 at 7:13 am

    Old fashion food pantries worked just fine for years but suddenly these are no longer suitable for our poor. The EBT cards often end up getting sold for drug money by the parents of these poor children. Let’s be honest, this program is easily abused and is not working as intended and the fraud is wasting tax payer money. If you truly support this program then you must also support fixing it so the rampant fraud is eliminated.

  • judy on 05.20.2014 at 1:39 am

    Kitty and missy, you are very wise. The worst thing though is that encouraging entitlements for people who have children is also fueling child neglect and abuse. I don’t buy all of the sappy hard time stories. If these people really had “family values” they would not have children in bad circumstances. Birth control was invented a long time ago and sperm just doesn’t fall out of the sky and run up your pant leg

  • BU Mom on 07.17.2015 at 8:29 am

    My state has specific food that can and can not be purchased with the EBT food card. For example, you van purchase boxed,prepackaged intant oatmeal, you can not purchase whole oats. The state prefers that families eat sugary, chemical added, processes food over the healthier, less expensive option. Go figure!

  • Jenn on 07.23.2015 at 9:32 am

    Wow. Such compassionate people. Who would Jesus starve?

    I realize that’s harsh, and I get that folks think it will create dependence: I am all for personal accountability> However, the fact is given the minimum wage, the cost of child care and the fact that the cost of living outpaces annual wage increases…. something’s gotta give. Either pay people more, work out something with childcare, decrease housing costs, improve transportation infrastructure. The system is broken. Meanwhile, people have to eat.

    What’s funny is usually people against these programs are also against sex education in schools and are pro-life. They don’t care about the kids once they are born.

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