Super Session: Changing the Recipe: Examining the Effects of Policy Changes to Federal Food Assistance Programs

Thursday, November 7, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Ballroom A & B (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Organizer:  Courtenay Kessler, Northwestern University
Moderators:  Shelly Ver Ploeg, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Lauren Bauer, Brookings Institute
Speakers:  Courtenay Kessler, Northwestern University, Debasmita Das, Purdue University, Wenhui Feng, Tufts University and Sarah Hamersma, Center for Policy Research

Despite remarkable improvements in food production and distribution systems over the past centuries, nearly 12% of households in the United States suffered from food insecurity in 2017. While this number represents a decline from the percentage of households going hungry during the Great Recession, food insecure households have hovered at or above 10% of the population since 2000. This issue is compounded by rising rates of obesity and related illnesses, and worsened by increasing income inequality.

The federal government has long attempted to combat these trends, funding multiple programs designed to provide sufficient nutrients to food insecure families. The long-standing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) provided nutrition assistance to over 40 million individuals in 2018. Recipients include low- or no-income individuals, families, and seniors. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides nutritious food packages to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, infants, and young children who meet income and nutritional risk criteria. In 2018, approximately 6.87 million individuals received WIC benefits. Although research is somewhat mixed, evidence suggests both programs improve nutritional intake and subsequent health for at least certain groups of participants.

While serving millions, both programs appear to experience under-enrollment and serve many fewer individuals than the number who officially qualify for these benefits. There is increasing evidence that some aspects of the programs may actually deter participation (e.g., SNAP work requirements; coupon/voucher use in WIC). Understanding the reasons for this participation gap is critical. Hunger, poor nutritional intake, and obesity-related illnesses are extremely costly in terms of medical care, lost wages, and premature loss of life. Thus, it is essential to understand how programmatic decisions influence whether individuals can successfully access benefits, and how policy changes influence health and economic outcomes.

In our panel, we present four papers that examine how federal nutrition assistance programs and their policies influence a range of outcomes, moving from proximal to longer-term effects. The first paper focuses on how changes in food delivery policies affect WIC enrollment, exploiting state-level variation in adoption of the electronic benefit transfer system. The next two papers use the temporary waiver of the work requirement policy for non-disabled adults without children (implemented as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and state-level variation in when these waivers expired, to examine the influence of SNAP participation on adult outcomes. The first of these examines how work requirement policies affect food purchase behaviors, food consumption habits, and work-related decisions of SNAP beneficiaries using policy-induced regional and time variations. The second analyzes the effects of receiving SNAP on both number of self-reported healthy days and body mass index (BMI), using a triple difference approach. The fourth and final paper examines the effects of SNAP on young adult recipients’ educational investment, using variation in work requirements across year and county.

Sarah Hamersma, Center for Policy Research; Matthew Kim, University of St. Thomas; Warren Brown, Cornell University - Can Food Help the “Great Equalizer” Succeed? SNAP Access and Young Adults’ Educational Engagement

Courtenay Kessler, Northwestern University - Examining the Influence of Electronic Benefit Transfer on WIC Participation and Outcomes

Debasmita Das, Purdue University - Understanding the Effects of Work Requirement Rules: Evidence from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Wenhui Feng, State University of New York at Albany - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Health Outcomes: An Investigation through Work Requirement Changes

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