Don’t Call Retreat in the War on Hunger

We need to take a step back and remember what the food stamp program helps address.

child sitting on a stoop

It is important to keep in mind that the country witnessed these increases in food insecurity despite the temporary increase in Food Stamp payments enacted in 2009. Research suggests food insecurity would have been even higher had government action not purposely expanded the SNAP program in an effort to combat the effects of the worst recession since the 1930s.

It is also important to keep in mind what food insecurity means to the family that encounters it. It means children will miss meals, perhaps several in a row. It means parents will not eat in order to feed their children. It means there are Americans going hungry.

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Research from various fields combines to paint a bleak picture of the long-run effects of inadequate access to food. Work on child development indicates that adequate nutrition plays an important role in brain development and thus long-run outcomes as adults.

new study authored by two of us has shown that the introduction of the food stamp program 50 years ago not only improved the health of children who received the benefits in the short run, but also permanently improved their health and educational outcomes as measured in adulthood.

Looking beyond the dreadful unemployment rate outcomes of the Great Recession paints an even bleaker picture of this period in U.S. history. The Great Recession increased food insecurity, which we know can have long-range impacts for health and economic well-being. The very good news is that we already have a program that has been shown to work at combating food insecurity and the consequences of inadequate nutrition. These facts are worth contemplating as Congress resumes the fight about whether and how to fund it.

Patricia Anderson is a professor of economics, Dartmouth College; Kristin Butcher is a professor of economics, Wellesley College; Hilary Hoynes is a professor of public policy and economics, University of California Berkeley and editor, American Economic Review; Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor of human development and social policy, Northwestern University. All four are research associates of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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