Academic journal article NBER Reporter

The Great Society, Food and Nutrition Programs, and Family Well Being

Academic journal article NBER Reporter

The Great Society, Food and Nutrition Programs, and Family Well Being

Article excerpt

Food and nutrition assistance programs are an important part of the U.S. safety net. In 2009, the Food Stamp Program (FSP) served about 34 million persons at a total cost of $56 billion and the Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) served 9 million people at a cost of $6.5 billion dollars. (1) The goal of these two programs is to improve the nutritional well-being and health of low-income families. In the post-welfare-reform era, the FSP increasingly has become the central safety net program in the United States. It is the only program that is universal--provided to all ages and family types whose income and assets make them eligible--and, unlike other cash or near-cash assistance programs, it is adjusted each year for changes in the cost of food. From 2008 to 2009, food stamp caseloads increased almost 20 percent. (2)

Both FSP and WIC were developed in the Great Society period of the 1960s and 1970s. They were introduced in direct response to policy recommendations highlighting health deficits among low-income individuals that might be reduced by improved access to food. It was further recognized that by providing food at "critical times" to pregnant and lactating women and young children, it might be possible to prevent a variety of health problems. (3)

Throughout the history of the FSP and WIC, the program parameters were set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; they are uniform across states. This is unusual, because U.S. states play an important role in setting the generosity of most means-tested transfer programs. Without the state-level variations that economists often use to evaluate transfer programs, the earlier research on FSP and WIC typically relied in some way on comparing program participants to non-participants. (4) Recently, this approach has come under question. For example, a number of researchers have pointed out that if pregnant women who participate in WIC are healthier, more motivated, or have better access to health care than other eligible women, comparisons between the children of WIC participants and nonparticipants could produce positive estimates for the program's results, even if there were none. Conversely, if WIC participants are more disadvantaged than other mothers, then such comparisons may understate the program's impact. (5) Similar arguments apply to the FSP; in fact several studies find that food stamp participation leads to a reduction in nutritional intake. These unexpected results are almost certainly driven by negative selection into the program. (6)

In a series of studies, my coauthors and I have estimated the impact of these food and nutrition programs by exploiting a novel research design. Specifically, we exploit considerable variation across counties in the geographic rollout of food stamps and WIC. FSP was introduced across U.S. counties over a 15-year period: the earliest programs were established in 1961 and the last ones in 1975. WIC was established first as a pilot program in 1972, it became permanent in 1975, and it reached near universal coverage by the end of the 1970s. The cross-county variation in the initiation of these two programs over time forms the basis for our estimation strategy. This research strategy has also been used to study other social programs similarly rolled out during the 1960s and 1970s, including Head Start, Medicare, and family planning services. (7) Using this county-by-county program rollout, my coauthors and I estimate the impact of FSP on food spending, labor supply, infant health, and adult economic and health outcomes, as well as the impact of WIC on infant health. This article briefly describes that work and possible future work in the area.

Food Stamps and Family Expenditures on Food

One project, with Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, uses the geographic rollout of the FSP to examine how food stamps affect family expenditures. (8) Food stamp benefits are not distributed as cash payments, but instead are vouchers which can be used to purchase a wide range of food products. …

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