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Small Increases in Family Food Support Yield Big Benefits for Children’s Health

Child with doctor and parent

Just as the federal government is considering cuts to food programs that help the poor, a new study shows the positive effects that financial support for nutrition can have on children’s access to health care.

AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) Associate Professor Taryn Morrissey and Daniel Miller of Boston University’s School of Social Work co-authored an article, “SNAP Participation Improves Children's Health Care Use: An Analysis of ARRA's Natural Experiment,” recently published in Academic Pediatrics.

The study examined how changes in the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits impacted spending on eligible children’s medical care and expenses. The researchers used a nationally representative sample of low-income households from the National Health Interview Survey to analyze children’s health care use after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) temporarily increased SNAP benefits from 2009 to 2013.

In the sample, 6% of low-income children suffered delayed care due to cost, and 3.5% of children who needed care but could not afford it were not treated at all. Access to dental care was especially threatened: this was the most common outstanding medical need due to lack of affordability, reported for about 10% of children.

The results indicate that while SNAP-eligible children had worse health care access than those who were near-eligible before the implementation of ARRA, the benefit increase improved access for SNAP-eligible children. In the months following ARRA, children in SNAP-eligible households were slightly more likely to be able to afford needed medication. With an increase in the amount of money given out monthly in SNAP benefits, families reported a 65% drop in outstanding medication needs due to affordability among SNAP-eligible children, relative to low-income, ineligible children.

The boost in SNAP benefits was about 14%, which meant a family of four receiving the maximum monthly benefit saw their amount go up $80, from $588 to $668.

“This study shows the interplay between different household needs. Nutrition assistance reduces food insecurity but it has other, cascading benefits,” said Morrissey. “This was a pretty small increase in SNAP benefits, but it had big effect.”

People often connect SNAP to food needs, but this paper adds to the growing body of literature showing that it is an essential home resource that offsets other kinds of spending––in this case, health care for children, which is a significant expense for families.

The proposed work requirements for adults in SNAP and changes to eligibility for free- and reduced-price school lunch may have spillover effects on SNAP or health care access for children.