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SNAP and Social Mobility

A Farm Bill At Last!

Tomorrow, at long last, the farm bill will be signed into law by President Obama. The big ticket is SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), which will cost $756 billion over the next 10 years.

Compared to current funding for SNAP, this is a cut of $8 billion over the next decade.  Most of the cuts result from closing a heating assistance loophole, which the CBO estimates will reduce benefits for 850,000 households by about $90 per month each. (This cut is very small compared to the cuts proposed in the House last year of $40 billion, which would have taken 3.8 million off the rolls in 2014.)

Why is SNAP important?

As Ron Haskins outlined in his 2012 Congressional testimony, SNAP serves three important purposes. It:

  1. Helps poor families to buy a nutritionally adequate diet
  2. Serves as an economic stabilizer
  3. Supplements the income of working poor and low-income families

But does SNAP also impact social mobility, either for good or ill?

As with all safety net programs, there is a tension between the two goals of guaranteeing help when it is  most needed, and encouraging self-sufficiency. There is some evidence, albeit modest, that SNAP could have a negative effect on labor force participation. For many, receiving SNAP benefits is not a one-time experience: for new entrants to the program in the mid-2000s, 60 percent of individuals had multiple spells on the program. To the extent that SNAP discourages work, it acts against upward mobility.

But nearly 72 percent of SNAP recipients are in families with children. And we know that childhood nutrition matters for mobility: not only for physical development, but also for cognitive and behavioral development. More generally, growing up in poverty has consequences that reach into adulthood and in 2012, SNAP kept 2.2 million children out of poverty.  So, meeting the minimal nutritional needs of the poor prevents some conditions that hamper mobility notwithstanding the multiple other challenges that many poor children face such as bad schools and dangerous neighborhoods.

We’re asking too much of SNAP if we want it to play more than a modest role in promoting mobility. But SNAP can contribute to detaching the circumstances of birth from chances in life.

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