Drs. Eduardo Ochoa and Patrick Casey , Children’s HealthWatch Co-Principal Investigators, wrote an op-ed published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the positive impact SNAP has on young children and why Congress should not impose further SNAP funding cuts.
For Kids’ Health: SNAP Helps Ensure Well-Being
As pediatricians, we treat the aches and pains-and sometimes the cancers and other serious ailments-of children. But we also see a more hidden and difficult-to-treat ailment: hunger.
An estimated 16.6 million American children live in households where food is sometimes scarce, which can have grave consequences for their health and development. Twenty percent of all Arkansas children live in similar households. Fortunately, we can refer many of them to a special therapy: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP helps more than 21 million children-nearly one in three of America’s kids, and one in three kids in Arkansas-eat a nutritionally sound diet. It is the best medicine the nation has to ensure that children of all ages don’t go hungry.
Hunger is a serious condition for children that can impair their physical and psychological health, as well as their intellectual development, from womb to old age. Compelling evidence shows that even those who experience relatively mild “cases” of not getting enough to eat for an active and healthy life can suffer serious physical and mental health problems.
Infants and toddlers from families where food is sometimes scarce are 90 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health and 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized than children in better-off households. For newborns, a mother receiving SNAP can be the difference between being born underweight or at a normal weight. Young children whose families benefit from SNAP are less likely to suffer deficiencies of key nutrients.
This effect on the developing brain and body carries through to the school years. For instance, girls whose families started receiving SNAP in their early elementary school years showed higher reading and math scores compared to peers whose families stopped participating in SNAP. Young children in families that lost SNAP benefits or had them reduced are more likely to be in poor health and suffer developmental delays.
SNAP has worked as intended, fulfilling its mandate to rapidly help those most affected by the recession, including families with children. The medical journal Lancet published a summary in October of the positive impacts of SNAP on child health and development, with benefits beginning in the womb and extending through the life span.
But our ability to help children with SNAP is under threat in active congressional deliberations that will determine the future of this program. The Senate has approved a cut of $4 billion over 10 years to SNAP benefits, while the House passed a cut of nearly$40 billion over 10 years. The House’s extreme cut would eliminate food assistance for at least 4 million to 6 million people, many of them children. Some 210,000 children would simultaneously lose free school meals when their families lose SNAP benefits. The Senate cut, while smaller, would still result in significant reduction in benefits, on average $90 per month.
These proposed cuts come on top of the benefit reductions which started Nov. 1st. Every SNAP household has already had benefits reduced. The increase in SNAP benefits granted during the recession has rolled back, such that every family of four will lose about 21 meals a month. While this may seem minimal, we know that families receiving the maximum SNAP benefit do not receive enough to meet USDA guidelines for a minimally healthy diet.
In Arkansas, this decrease in SNAP benefits will affect 117,000 households and more than 230,000 children. The state will lose about $37 million to help households with children.
These proposed cuts could backfire on our economy. More unhealthy kids will increase health-care costs-the average cost of a pediatric hospital stay is $8,433, compared with SNAP benefits that will average less than $1.40 per person per meal next year. Education costs could go up, too. Special education for a child with developmental delays costs twice as much as regular schooling. Studies show that in a distressed economy such as ours, every dollar of SNAP benefits creates about $1.70 in economic activity, as SNAP recipients spend their benefits on food quickly.
When kids go hungry, we all pay the price. We hope that Arkansas’ Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Rick Crawford, who serve on the congressional conference committee, will recognize that SNAP has already been cut for our children and families. Their health can bear no more reductions.
Families with limited income would do everything possible to avoid having their children go hungry, including cutting other necessities. Our national family should do no less for our children; nor should we solve our economic problems on the backs of our children.
We urge Congress to strengthen SNAP, not whittle it away. Pediatric science shows SNAP can make a big difference, acting like a vaccine that protects our young patients’ brains and bodies. Without the help of Congress, many will lose the health benefits of that vaccine.
Drs. Eduardo Ochoa and Patrick Casey are UAMS pediatricians and Children’s HealthWatch researchers.
Editorial, Pages 17 on 11/06/2013