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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

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September 27, 2013

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on September 26, 2013.

By Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, Hilary W. Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

The real crisis is hunger, not government spending.

The House voted last week to cut $39 billion over 10 years on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also called both SNAP and "Food Stamps," and now the bill moves to the Senate. It has become a controversial funding issue.

Despite the fact that the program lifts 2.1 million children out of poverty annually, and has been shown to be an effective counter-cyclical stabilizer, some are calling for major changes to the program in the name of curbing government spending. The bill that passed 217-210 includes changes ranging from nearly $4 billion per year in cuts to the program and increased work requirements to massive restrictions in the goods that can be purchased.

In the midst of the political wrangling over financing programs, it seems worth stepping back to think about the problem that the SNAP program is meant to help address: food insecurity.

Food insecurity is a measure, related to but separate from hunger, meant to capture whether or not households have consistent access to nutritious foods. It is measured by a battery of questions ranging from whether household members were worried about running out of money for food to how often the adults or children in the family go hungry or go without eating. Depending on the number of affirmative responses, a household is categorized as being food secure, food insecure or having "very low food security."

Through a grant sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, we have been studying food insecurity over the course of the Great Recession. In the four years preceding the Great Recession, about 11.3 percent of U.S. households were classified as food insecure. But from 2008-2012, this rate remained above 14.5 percent, more than a 30 percent rise in the level of food insecurity. For households with children under 18, close to 21 percent are now classified as food insecure. The fraction of families that report that adults or children in their households have skipped meals or gone for a day without eating has increased sharply.

One's reaction to statistics might be that it is not surprising that during this deep recession, food insecurity went up in conjunction with the increase in the poverty rate. But increases in poverty do not appear to tell the whole story.

It is true that more people had lower incomes in the Great Recession, putting them at greater risk of food insecurity, but even holding constant a family's income-to-poverty ratio we have found stark increases in food insecurity rates. One way to think about this is that food insecurity rates are revealing something about the deep hardship of this time period that are not reflected in measured income-to-poverty ratios.

Why have food insecurity rates been so high since the Great Recession, even after controlling for income-to-poverty rates? Research is still inconclusive, but the list of potential culprits is taking focus: unemployment duration has been aberrantly high during this recession. Perversely, high unemployment may undermine the ability of the Earned Income Tax Credit to function in its safety net role because if there are no earnings, the tax credit provides no subsidy.

The dual loss of income from a job and the subsidy from the tax credit has hit single-mother families, which are at high risk of food insecurity, particularly hard. The Great Recession saw a collapse of access to credit, including home equity, which individuals might have used to buffer their food consumption against bouts of unemployment.

In what may be seen as an accumulation of insults, prices of food and energy have been relatively high (even though overall inflation has been low) and these necessities take up a larger share of the budgets of low-income individuals. This list adds up to a situation where resources that would "normally" be used to weather a bad economic patch are being depleted, and we are seeing worse food security outcomes among low-income households.

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.

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.

- Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.