A little more food could mean much better health for the poor

AntiPovertySoldierIn one of the earliest “Anti-Poverty Soldier” columns, I explored the disturbing issue of hunger both in Minnesota and throughout the country. One of the primary topics in the column addressed the debate over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program.

To provide a little background, The New York Times ran a story in 2009 revealing that millions of eligible households across America were currently not accessing food support benefits. In response to this service gap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a program designed to increase outreach to eligible households and provide support to assist them in applying for SNAP benefits.

Locally, a collaboration between the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the Greater Twin Cities United Way, and several Community Action agencies significantly helped increase the number of low-income households now receiving food support. In Ramsey County alone, the percentage of those receiving benefits rose from 60 percent to well over 80 percent in just a couple of years.

Although this effort, plus similar actions nationwide, were instrumental in helping people in need to access nutritional resources, Congress soon sought to reduce SNAP funding. The bill, which was ultimately defeated, would have impacted nearly 50 million Americans, the overwhelming majority of them children, seniors, or people with disabilities.

Couple_eating_lunchIn Minnesota alone, more than 550,000 people would have been adversely affected. While these funding cuts were averted, there are still measures being taken at both state and national levels to slowly “nudge” recipients out of the program by instituting time limits on SNAP benefits as well as employing other eligibility restrictions.

Yet, as some are still looking to decrease the dollars spent on SNAP, others suggest a modest investment in SNAP could significantly improve health-related outcomes and help to save money in other critical areas. A new study by Dartmouth College economist Patricia M. Anderson and Wellesley College economist Kristin F. Butcher reminds us that the recipients of food support have not seen an increase in benefits since the 1970s.

More to the point, this study suggests that an increase in monthly SNAP benefits of $30 per person could significantly improve the overall health and nutritional circumstances of low-income families across the country. According to the report, the current average monthly benefit for SNAP is approximately $126.00 per person.

Anderson and Butcher state that the extra $30 per month per person would yield the following results:

  • An increase in monthly grocery spending
  • An increase in the consumption of more nutritious foods, including vegetables and healthy proteins
  • A reduction in the consumption of fast foods
  • A reduction in food insecurity.

Regarding the policy implications of this suggested increase, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also supports the recent findings of economists Hilary Hoynes, Diane Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond. Published in the American Economic Review, their study illustrates that low-income “households, if given additional resources for food, would spend them on more nutritious foods that may yield better long-term health outcomes.

“[This] is consistent with research comparing the long-term outcomes of people in different geographic areas when food stamps gradually expanded nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s. Children who had access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had access during pregnancy had better health and educational outcomes as adults than children without access to food stamps.”

When you examine this research, particularly in light of the scourge of food insecurity, the obesity epidemic, and the disparate health-related outcomes for low-income families and communities of color, it seems like a wise, responsible and moral decision to provide this increase. Not only is it sound economically, it also might demonstrate that we as a society really do care about those among us who are less fortunate.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorably noted, “a budget is a moral document.” It is a statement of our principles, our values, and our concern (or lack thereof) for our fellow citizens. A budget is a reflection of conscience, and such documents and related actions will enable history to judge how we treat one another. Is it really too much to make such a humble investment in the health of America’s low-income families?


Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.

One Comment on “A little more food could mean much better health for the poor”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful, timely and humane article. So often the reality that poverty, socio-economic status and lack of access to the fundamental materials needed to live well and to have health are denied to those very people who are the most vulnerable in the American society is lost on the “privileged masses”; here I am not defining privilege strictly by color as the specter of hunger impacts many communities.

    As I watched American eating legend Joey Chestnut consume “seventy” hotdogs on the Fourth of July I wondered about the morality of America that embraces these kinds of contests, while asking their congressional representatives to cut government spending for helping people to have adequate food access.

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