By MATTHEW D. ERNST
AMES, Iowa — A statistical study could add weight to arguments favoring current funding levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, the largest budget item in the farm bill.
“Our results suggest that SNAP is largely doing what it is intended to do – helping alleviate food insecurity – even though the impacts of public assistance programs cannot be discerned from the data alone,” said Brent Kreider, professor of economics at Iowa State University.
The research, published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, estimated SNAP reduces food insecurity among high-risk children by at least 20 percent. According to researchers’ analysis, SNAP reduces poor general health by at least 35 percent.
The average causal effects of SNAP were positive, said the researchers, who performed statistical analysis of data from a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kreider published the study with co-authors, including Craig Gundersen, an agricultural economics associate professor and executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Researchers from the University of Virginia and the World Bank were also listed.
Increased funding for SNAP has sometimes been criticized by claims that the program fails to actually improve the health of recipients. In an ISU release, Kreider acknowledged some limitations of this study for that debate.
“Our methods do not allow us to pinpoint exact estimates of how SNAP affects children’s health, but we can provide informative ranges on average causal effects of the program,” he said.
Identifying child health improvements as the result of SNAP became more likely as the researchers tightened their statistical restrictions to reflect, they believe, a more realistic interpretation of the data. “Under the weakest restrictions, there is substantial ambiguity; we cannot rule out the possibility that SNAP increases or decreases poor health,” wrote the researchers.
“Under stronger but plausible assumptions used to address the selection and classification error problems, we find that commonly cited relationships between SNAP and poor health outcomes provide a misleading picture about the true impacts of the program. Our tightest bounds identify favorable impacts of SNAP on child health.”
Debate on SNAP budget belt-tightening has been contentious. The version of the farm bill approved by the House Committee on Agriculture last year included $16 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. The Senate version, by contrast, slimmed down the program by some $4 billion for the same period.
As research on SNAP continues, continued Congressional sparring over the program is likely.
U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a vocal critic of SNAP program expansion, is chair of the House agriculture subcommittee overseeing SNAP. In an election debate last fall, King accused Democrats of trying to “grow the dependency class” by expanding food stamps.
Meanwhile, some Democratic senators are reluctant to enact even cost savings in SNAP. Led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), 16 of them wrote to the Congressional “supercommittee” in 2011 asking for nutrition program protection.
“Specifically, we ask that you not find cost savings in the (SNAP) since this program is a true safety net for America’s lowest income and neediest families,” they wrote.
A report from USDA’s Economic Research Service last September showed SNAP program expenditures increased both as the national unemployment rate increased and as the maximum SNAP benefit was raised through the Stimulus Act.
SNAP funding was almost $72 billion during fiscal year 2011.
Some farm policy observers cite SNAP cuts as the main barrier for House debate on the farm bill. A Jan. 24 update from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) noted last year’s proposed House budget would cut SNAP by $130 million during the coming decade.
“With SNAP cuts the No. 1 reason why the full House never dealt with the farm bill last year, it is a near certainty that if the House budget returns to where it left off last year and if House GOP leaders hold fast to such a proposal, the chances for either a joint House-Senate budget resolution or a five-year farm bill this year are nil,” stated NSAC.