Panel Paper: Food Assistance Programs and the Health of Young Children In Low-Income Immigrant Households

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 2:45 PM
Schaefer (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Danielle Crosby, UNC-Greensboro and Anurika Ejimofor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This study examines the associations the federal food stamp program (SNAP) and child health for a sample of 5,000 preschool-aged children living in low-income households—nearly 30 percent of whom have a foreign-born parent. Of interest is whether programs designed to support early health and development, do so for immigrant children, who have had more limited access to these supports post-welfare reform. Data are drawn from the first three waves of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), when children were approximately 9 months, 2 years and 4 years old. The ECLS-B offers several advantages for studying the development of immigrant children, including information about parents’ country of origin, time in the U.S., and language use. Large samples sizes permit comparisons between immigrant children and their co-ethnic counterparts in native families.

Three sets of analyses are used to address the questions guiding this study. First, multivariate regression models (controlling for an extensive set of baseline characteristics) are used to estimate the association between family SNAP receipt and two indicators of children’s health (physical health status and obesity status). These models test for interactive effects between immigrant status and program participation. Second, instrumental variable (IV) models—which rely on between-state policy variation in immigrant eligibility for benefits to instrument for program participation—are used to evaluate the extent to which selection processes explain observed associations between SNAP and child health. Finally, a third set of analyses relies on structural equation models (SEM) to explore potential mediating pathways through which program effects operate.

Results to date indicate that SNAP receipt is associated with lower rates of overweight and obesity among preschool-aged children in immigrant families (in contrast to the association observed for children in native families). For example, estimated marginal means indicate that 23% of children in immigrant families receiving food stamps are obese (i.e., BMI above the 95thpercentile) compared to 29% in similar immigrant families not receiving food stamps; the comparable figures for children in native families are 20% and 14% respectively. Our instrumental variable analysis suggests that although selection factors appear to explain much of this association in the native sample, this is not the case in the immigrant sample where the IV results are consistent with those obtained in OLS.

Prior analyses of these data indicate that immigrant households are more likely than native households to experience food insecurity during children’s first few years of life. To the extent that food assistance programs promote food security, support health practices and reduce economic hardship, they may serve as an important early childhood investment. As noted, SEM analyses are underway to examine these processes in low-income immigrant families, a group that remains relatively understudied in the broader literature on the developmental impacts of safety net programs.

The current set of findings raises questions about existing policies restricting immigrant parents’ access to benefits, which may be at odds with other policy goals of reducing health disparities and promoting early academic success for their children.