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In Defense of Federal Food Aid

Alleviating food insecurity is not only a moral imperative; it also makes good economic sense

“Strengthening SNAP and reducing food insecurity in the more than 22 million U.S. households that receive nutritional assistance on a monthly basis is a smart public investment that will improve both public health and economic growth.” – Robert E. Rubin and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 27, 2016.

By Robert E. Rubin and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

The rate of food insecurity in the U.S. spiked during the Great Recession and it continues to remain unconscionably high in the world’s wealthiest nation. In 2014, according to the Agriculture Department, nearly one in five U.S. households with children—a total of 15.3 million children—were food insecure, which means at some point during the year they lacked adequate food. In nine states, one in four children lives in a food-insecure household.

Yet this month close to a million working-age adults will begin losing their access to an average of $5 a day in food assistance provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), due to the reintroduction of a three-month time limit on benefits for some unemployed adults. While losing $5 a day might seem like a small amount to many Americans, for others it can be the difference between eating three meals and going to bed hungry.

The federal estimate of food insecurity is a mere snapshot that likely understates the extent of the problem. According to a recent report by one of the authors here, Ms. Schanzenbach, and her colleagues at the Hamilton Project, households cycle in and out of food insecurity with some frequency. Most families only need temporary help to get back on their feet. New SNAP entrants participate in the program for about 12 months on average.

Alleviating food insecurity is not only a moral imperative; it also makes good economic sense. A study of the federal nutrition-assistance program dating back to 1961, published this month in the American Economic Review and co-authored by Ms. Schanzenbach, found that access to the program resulted in improved high-school graduation rates, better health outcomes in adulthood, and, for women, greater economic self-sufficiency.

A continued commitment to strengthen this highly effective program is necessary, and to achieve this we encourage Congress and the Agriculture Department to consider four common-sense reforms:

  • Allow childless adults to continue to receive benefits if they are earnestly searching for work.
  • Expand access to summer nutrition programs for children, most of whom are not in school and so miss out on public-school lunch programs.
  • Provide more resources to families with teenagers to offset the increase in food costs associated with their growth spurts.
  • Increase benefits to reduce the unrealistic amount of cooking time necessary to maintain a balanced diet on SNAP. A number of studies have shown that it takes up to 14 hours of cooking a week to maintain a nutritious diet on the mix of food you can afford with SNAP. Yet today the average American spends only four hours a week cooking. This disconnect has eroded the effectiveness of the program and must be addressed.

It is our belief that economic growth, broad participation in that growth, and individual economic security are mutually reinforcing, and that government has a critical role to play. Strengthening SNAP and reducing food insecurity in the more than 22 million U.S. households that receive nutritional assistance on a monthly basis is a smart public investment that will improve both public health and economic growth.

- Ms. Schanzenbach, a professor of social policy at Northwestern University, is director of the Hamilton Project, a Washington, D.C.-based economic-policy group.

Topics: Media, Opinion

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