SNAP Benefit Reductions and Cutoffs may put Children’s and Families’ Health at Risk

Originally published on FRAC ResearchWIRE.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an essential and effective nutrition program that helps people of all ages stay healthy. Though the program’s explicit goal is to improve food security by providing consistent, adequate access to enough food for an active, healthy life, it also acts as a work support. More than half of all households with children who participated in SNAP in 2016 had earned income. Despite the fact that so many families are employed, many earn low wages, have unpredictable schedules, work seasonally, or have sporadic overtime hours resulting in unstable or unpredictable income. Such changes in income, especially increases, can cause families’ SNAP benefits to be reduced or even cut off, leading to further income volatility.

While SNAP eligibility can be complex, it theoretically provides a smooth gradient for people to increase their income and SNAP benefits gradually reduce until the household is no longer eligible for the program. In practice, however, this does not necessarily happen, and the sharper cutoffs and reductions that families may experience have health implications, especially for families with children.

New research from Children’s HealthWatch published in Health Affairs demonstrates that families with young children whose SNAP benefits were reduced or cut off due to increased earned income were at risk of poor parent and child health, child developmental delays, maternal depressive symptoms, household and child food insecurity, as well as other material (housing instability, energy insecurity) and health care hardships.

The research described in this study highlights that basic needs in the family budget do not exist in isolation: reductions or loss in one area have ripple effects on other needs. Despite increased income, families in the current study who experienced reduced SNAP benefits or those who were cut off of SNAP entirely were impacted across a variety of basic needs. Further losses not examined in the study also are possible, such as the loss of other benefits that are linked to SNAP participation (e.g., utility rate discounts, direct certification for free school meals).

Improvements to SNAP policy could help smooth the decline in SNAP benefits for families who increase their income. This includes changing some of the fundamental assumptions governing how the SNAP benefit is calculated. For example, using a more updated and realistic market basket of foods to drive the annual calculation of the maximum SNAP benefit would raise the financial value of the benefit and give a family a greater buffer as their income — and expected contribution to their food budget — increases. In conclusion, the attainment of a livable wage is an important part of the solution to helping low-income families, but policymakers must be careful to ensure that key supports, such as SNAP, are not cut back or terminated before a family is truly financially stable.

FRAC wishes to thank Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, MPH, Executive Director; Richard Sheward, MPP, Deputy Director of Innovative Partnerships; Allison Bovell-Ammon, MDiv, Deputy Director of Policy Strategy; and Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, Principal Investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, headquartered at Boston Medical Center, for contributing this column to ResearchWIRE.