Young girl's face
December 11, 2018

Congress reached agreement on a final 2018 farm bill that jettisoned provisions in the House version to expand work requirements for food stamp eligibility.

While the farm bill doesn’t place new restrictions to food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Trump administration could move to restrict public benefits through regulation. The Department of Agriculture is likely to issue its own proposed rule to limit states from waiving current SNAP employment requirements. In September, the Department of Homeland Security suggested changing the “public charge” rules that would limit immigrants’ access to SNAP and other public health programs, Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program).

If enacted, these restrictions may have harmful consequences for children down the road, said Chloe East, PhD, assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver.

Graphic depicting how poor health increased when food stamp benefits decreased.
Image depicting the summary effects of food stamp program benefit restrictions. Courtesy of Center for Poverty Research, University of California, Davis

In a recent study in The Journal of Human Resources, East found the first evidence that loss of parental eligibility for food stamps when children are under the age of 5 had lasting, negative effects on the children’s health beginning as early as age 6. The study is called “The Effect of Food Stamps on Children’s Health: Evidence from Immigrants’ Changing Eligibility.”

“The food stamp program is one of the U.S.’s biggest safety nets, with 25 percent of children benefiting from it,” East said. “The rule change is concerning because not enough is known about the broad effects of the Food Stamp program because it hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.”

In fact, the only major change came between 1996 and 2003, the years following President Clinton’s welfare reform — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. As a result of welfare reform, most documented non-citizens lost eligibility, and it was subsequently restored at different times in different states. East found that eligibility increased participation in the Food Stamp program by about 50 percent and also increased benefits by $185 annually per household with immigrant parents and U.S.-born kids.

East used the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) to track the effect of the policy changes on U.S.-born children of immigrants, whose parents were subject to the changes in eligibility after the policy change in 1996. East examined health conditions predicted to be affected by poor early life nutrition. She found that changes in nutrition and resources in the first few years of life can have lasting effects in the medium-run on a child’s health between ages 6 and 16 years old.

“The biggest effects of the Food Stamp program are on developmental health outcomes,” East said. “And the effect seems to be concentrated among those who lost eligibility in early life.” The study also concluded that one additional year of Food Stamp access reduces the likelihood the child is in “Poor,” “Fair” or “Good” health by about 5 percent (relative to “Very Good” or “Excellent” health).

Chloe East, PhD, assistant professor of economics, University of Colorado Denver
Chloe East, PhD, assistant professor of economics, University of Colorado Denver

Worse health outcomes mean a higher cost for the health care system down the road. More importantly, the new study provides sorely needed evidence about the modern SNAP program.

“We need to understand how early life access to safety nets affects child development,” East said. “And policy changes that affect children of immigrants should be important to policymakers because 25 percent of all children today were born to immigrants.”

Guest contributor: Rachel Sturtz, Office of Research

Media contact: Meme Moore, [email protected], 303-315-0009

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