Harvest of Shame
Although we have had some signs of progress in Washington, DC, on early learning, the House of Representatives recently took steps that could reduce the access of many children to nutritious food as essential to healthy brain and physical development as reading Green Eggs and Ham.
First, the House defeated the bipartisan Farm Bill, which authorizes both farm subsidies and nutrition programs for low-income households. Then, in an unprecedented action, the House severed these two historically mutually-supportive interests, voting to approve only the farm subsidy portion of the bill. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) for people with low incomes, including many young children, was left in limbo. What will be the harvest if the seeds of these decisions take hold?
To be clear, the bipartisan bill that came out of Committee would have cut $20 billion from SNAP. This cut compares to a smaller cut of $4 billion in the comparable Senate bill. These cuts would be devastating to many individuals and families with children for whom food assistance helps keep hunger at bay. Even more onerous amendments adopted by the full House sapped the bipartisan support for the full Farm Bill, but some Members voted against it because the cuts weren’t deep enough. This mindset does not augur well if a SNAP bill must move on its own.
How this legislative tangle will be worked out remains to be seen. The best case would be for the Senate to successfully insist on including the SNAP funding in a conference between the two Houses, restoring the historical alliance between areas of the country that favor each part. But the fact that the House voted for subsidies for farm products (including non-edible commodities such as cotton) and left people hit hard by the recession literally wondering where their meals may come from over the next year is an example of priorities turned upside down.
We know that 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 on for size:
A 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.
The nutrition young children receive through the principal federal food assistance program is so important that Children’s HealthWatch has dubbed it “the SNAP vaccine.” 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.
Over the next couple of months, Congress must move toward resolving the questions of when, how, and at what level to set SNAP funding, as well as decisions about funding for other programs that support early development and health. 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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Senator Murray receives the award for making babies and young children a national priority.