Source: Image by hudsoncrafted from Pixabay
This post was co-authored with Anna Markowitz, Ph.D., and members of the CUESI Lab—Kristina Brittenham, J.D., Katherine Griffin, Ph.D., Taylor Hazelbaker, M.A., and Lindsey Nenadal, Ph.D.
The holiday season is just around the corner—for many of us, a season of family get-togethers around well-stocked tables. Yet for many families, this time of year can be less than wonderful. Food insecurity, or insufficient access to the quantity or quality of food needed to support a healthy life, is an unfortunate reality for far too many Americans. Food insecurity affects one in six American households with children. In 2018, about 12 million children lived in food-insecure households.
That so many children in a country as wealthy as the United States experience food insecurity should be alarming, especially given robust scientific evidence of the harmful effects of food insecurity on children’s development. At every developmental stage, experiencing food insecurity adversely affects development. Prenatally, poor maternal nutrition can result in reduced intake of essential nutrients (such as calcium, iron, and folate) critical for normal fetal development, and is associated with elevated risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. Results from a nationally-representative study of children born in the U.S. indicate that food insecurity during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with poorer cognitive and socioemotional school readiness. Several studies link food insecurity to school-age children’s academic and socioemotional skills, as well as their physical and mental health.
Government social safety net programs are designed to buffer the effects of poverty for children and families, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) in particular has targeted food insecurity. In 2018, nearly 40 million individuals received SNAP benefits.
Research suggests SNAP is effective at reducing food insecurity and supporting development, and in turn, child poverty. A recent study of over 145,000 third through eighth graders showed that when children take achievement tests shortly after their family receives their SNAP benefit (as compared to a few weeks later, when food may be running low), they perform better on end-of-grade math and reading achievement tests. SNAP has also been shown to increase children’s birth weight and cognitive development, and decrease children’s ER visits and absences from school, likely through increases in food spending and access to healthier foods.
Food assistance programs like SNAP are not large enough to cover a low-income family’s entire food budget, but still make a meaningful difference in food security. Beginning in 2018, however, the Trump administration has proposed several rounds of cuts to SNAP that would severely restrict access to benefits for many low-income individuals, including families with children. Proposed changes include increasing work requirements for adults without dependents who rely on food stamps, cutting benefits for people who have savings or assets, and categorical changes to eligibility requirements—in a program with a fraud rate of just 1 percent. Another round of proposed cuts would limit standard heating and cooling utility allowances, placing an additional 8,000 households at risk for losing their SNAP benefits due to restrictions in eligibility requirements.
These changes are marketed as aiming to increase government efficiency and incentivize work, but what often gets lost is that such changes jeopardize children’s health and wellbeing. Thirty-five percent of SNAP spending goes to families with children; cutting SNAP is undercutting children’s food security.
And these changes may have the consequence of disrupting the free-and-reduced-price school lunch program as well. An analysis by the Urban Institute showed that the proposed SNAP eligibility changes would affect students’ access to school lunch via the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides free lunches schoolwide based in part on the proportion of SNAP-receiving children in a school. All told, these changes are likely to result in over one million students losing access to free-or-reduced-price meals. Children’s development should not be compromised because entrenched stereotypes about the poor lead to blame-oriented policies that strip benefits from their parents.
So, what can you do? Anyone interested can submit their comments regarding the proposed cuts to SNAP through the Food Research and Action Center. The comment period for the latest round of proposed changes is open until December 2. Comments don’t have to be limited to the latest round; no final rulings have been issued yet on any of the possible cuts. It’s also possible to contact elected representatives in the Senate (call: 202-224-3121) or the House of Representatives (call: 202-224-3121).
Public input and action can be a powerful force. With over a million children at risk, we hope you will take a moment this holiday season to channel gratitude for the food on your table into action for those whose tables may soon be empty.
Source: Image by David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay
Author Bios: Anna is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Psychology in the Department of Education at UCLA. Her research focuses on how policy shapes the developmental contexts children spend time in, with a particular focus on early care and education and food insecurity. Lindsey’s research addresses teachers and focuses on the development and implementation of social justice curriculum for elementary school students and teachers’ social class beliefs. She is an Assistant Professor of Child Development at California State University, Chico. Katherine is a recent graduate of UCLA and her current research involves a community-based partnership with a local non-profit to address the role of stigmatization in families’ experiences of benefit receipt from non-profit and government organizations. Taylor and Kristina are graduate students in the Human Development and Psychology program in the Department of Education at UCLA.