Policy Resource

SNAP Cuts Negotiations Could Yield Tricks, not Treats, for Babies

Oct 18, 2013

Lost in the hoopla over the budget conference that resulted from the shutdown/debt ceiling agreement is a House-Senate conference set to kick off this week to complete work on a farm bill.

The outcome could impact the healthy development of infants and toddlers. The principal point of contention is possible cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Both the Senate and the House have proposed cuts—it’s just a matter of degree. But as the conference gets underway, children and families already will see a drop in SNAP benefits on Thursday night as a boost provided in the 2009 stimulus bill expires—trick or treat!

The Senate bill would cut $4 billion over 10 years from SNAP, mostly by limiting coordination with energy assistance benefits. The House stripped the program from its farm bill and passed a stand-alone bill with a massive cut of $40 billion over 10 years. Its cuts would impose more severe limits on coordination with energy assistance, restricting categorical eligibility for other programs, eliminating waivers for jobless, childless adults without dependents, and allowing states to cut off families when they can’t find sufficient work or training hours. (For more information on the farm bill, see materials developed by the Food Research and Action Center.)

Even more overlooked is a benefit cut affecting all children, families, and individuals receiving SNAP that will take place this Friday with no fanfare, just less food purchasing power and likely emptier tummies. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—often called the stimulus bill) provided a boost to SNAP benefits until 2018. This increase has been raided several times, most recently to pay for child nutrition programs, always with the promise that the cuts would be restored. They haven’t been. The average monthly benefit will drop by $10 to $15 a person, or about 10%. This is a lot for households living right on the economic edge, where being able to spend a little less out of pocket for food might mean being able to keep the heat on or pay the rent.

With small tummies expected to tighten up, we should take note of this quietly creeping danger to the health and well-being of many families and particularly infants and toddlers. Hunger and food insecurity are estimated to cost the United States $90 billion annually in direct and indirect costs. The nutrition of young children figures into the daily lives of many SNAP households. Forty percent of SNAP recipients live in a household with a child under age 5. These young children comprise 16% of all SNAP recipients.

What does lack of good nutrition mean for developing minds and bodies? Try these facts:

Lack of nutritious food during pregnancy increases the risk of low birth weight babies; infant mortality; cleft palate; spina bifida; brain, neural, and physical defects; and adverse effects on long-term health, growth, and developmental trajectories. Infants and toddlers in food insecure households are at greater risk of damaging effects in the areas of brain and cognitive development in the perinatal period, school readiness, and physical, mental, and social development.

In fact, Children’s HealthWatch has dubbed this important program “the SNAP vaccine,” because it provides critical ingredients for the early development of eligible children. Young children who receive SNAP, when compared to children who don’t but likely are eligible, are significantly less likely to be at risk of being underweight or having developmental delays. Their families are less likely to have to make trade-offs between meeting other basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, or heating, that are equally important to early development. What’s more, by looking at SNAP benefit increases provided in the 2009 stimulus bill, Children’s HealthWatch found that if you boost the dosage of the vaccine, children are in better health.

The conferees on the farm bill have many decisions to make, none more important—or more contentious—than determining how far to cut back on basic nutritional assistance to individuals and families for whom economic recovery has been excruciatingly slow. As our July 22nd blog post, Harvest of Shame noted, “These decisions will have profound consequences for young children who are in a period of development that will determine the foundation for later success in school and in life. If these young children were viewed as a crop necessary to keep our economy healthy, maybe policymakers would worry more about how the productivity yield down the road will be affected by inadequate nutrients now. As it is, we risk that harvest being a shameful one.”

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