The House and Senate have passed radically different bills for extension of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. Now, the two bills go to a joint House-Senate Conference Committee to produce a final bill, which will then be voted on by both chambers of Congress. The bipartisan Senate bill is far superior to the House version and deserves our support.
In the noise of the political debate that will certainly ensue, it is important to keep the focus on one thing: SNAP works. SNAP is vital to relieving hunger for many Americans, including the most vulnerable among us – children, elderly, the disabled and the poor. In New Mexico, for example, more than 73 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; almost 26 percent are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities; and 86 percent live at or below the poverty line.
SNAP works not only in achieving its intended aim of relieving hunger, but also in improving health and life chances for recipients. Further, SNAP has important impacts beyond those that come to the recipients themselves: SNAP also helps save health care costs and boost the economy in many communities. Generally, hungry people are not healthy people, and relieving hunger also improves productivity, which benefits us all. Consider:
• SNAP improves health for all age groups. In research studies, SNAP participants are more likely to report excellent or very good health than low-income non-participants. Early access to SNAP among pregnant mothers improves birth outcomes. Extensive research has shown a strong correlation between food insecurity and chronic health conditions among children, working-age adults and seniors.
• SNAP improves long-term health and economic outcomes. The improved health for SNAP-receiving children carries on into better health as adults. Adults who received SNAP benefits as young children reported better health and had lower rates of so-called “metabolic syndrome” – a combined measure of incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Women who had access to food stamps as young children reported improving economic self-sufficiency, as measured by a combination of employment, income, poverty status, high school graduation and program participation.
• SNAP saves health care dollars. Low-income adults participating in SNAP incur about $1,400, or nearly 25 percent less, in medical care costs in a year than low-income non-participants. The difference is even greater for those with hypertension (nearly $2,700 less) and coronary heart disease (over $4,100 less).
While improving health and decreasing health care costs are important outcomes that benefit both SNAP recipients and society as a whole, SNAP does more. SNAP improves life chances for recipients and increases their economic contribution to society as a whole.
• Children who receive SNAP do better in school. Access to a healthy, adequate diet during early childhood is essential to developing the skills crucial for school success, including memory, emotional stability and social skills. SNAP participation can lead to improvements in reading and math skills among elementary school students (especially young girls) and increases the chances of graduating from high school. The effects are so obvious to teachers and administrators that schools sometimes have parent organizations provide breakfast for children during exam week in order to boost scores for their children. Of course, doing well in school sets children up to succeed in life and in work.
There is no need for hunger to exist in this affluent nation. Hunger hurts recipients in the short run – as they feel hunger pangs – and in the long run – as it harms long-term health and puts a ceiling on chances for success. It hurts all of us by unnecessarily diminishing our chances of having a productive and contributing workforce, and increasing health care costs we all pay. Please let your U.S. Representative and Senators know the important role SNAP plays in strengthening our citizens and our country, and that you want them to protect it.
Gerry Fairbrother, Ph.D., a retired health services and policy researcher, is a co-leader of RESULTS and a member of the Advocacy Committee of the Food Depot, northern New Mexico’s food bank. Scott Bunton, a retired senior U.S. Senate staff member and Executive Branch official, is a member of the Food Depot’s board.