Student Well-Being Commentary

Yes, the Social Safety Net Matters for Student Performance

By Anna Gassman-Pines & Laura Bellows — March 29, 2018 4 min read
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Imagine two children in the same school sit down to take their end-of-grade tests on the same day. One child’s family just received its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), while the other received its benefits three weeks earlier.

In our newly published study, we find that the second child tends to score slightly higher than the first on both reading and math tests. That’s likely because the second child took the test after several weeks of sufficient food at home and decreased family stress. And even a small difference in test performance can matter, because the second child would also be more likely to meet state standards for grade-level proficiency. In several states, meeting such grade-level standards in certain grades is a requirement for children to advance to the next grade.

The Trump administration recently proposed a massive overhaul to the SNAP program. The idea to offer half of payments in the form of a basket of predetermined food items, known as a “Harvest Box,” got the most attention in the media. However, the president’s budget released last month also proposed a substantial cut to the program—25 percent. Now, a pitched battle over of the future of the nutritional program is raging at the center of Congressional negotiations on the farm bill. Our research predicts considerable damage if the SNAP budget is slashed.

SNAP is our largest social safety-net program, currently serving more than 42 million low-income Americans. The average household benefit is $268 per month, which can only be used to purchase food. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, economists estimate that every dollar provided in SNAP generates $1.70 for the U.S. economy. But recent research, including our own, shows that reduced funding would not only harm the economy today, but would also slow future economic growth as the children of today become the workers of tomorrow.

Our research adds to a growing consensus that SNAP benefits are insufficient for families who rely on them."

Social science research has shown that SNAP improves individuals’ physical health and families’ economic well-being. These effects are particularly important for children: The initial rollout of food stamps across the country in the 1960s decreased the incidence of low birth-weight infants, infant mortality, and other health problems.

However, the funding allotted to this nutrition program is already not enough, even before considering possible looming budget cuts. Our research adds to a growing consensus that SNAP benefits are insufficient for families who rely on them. It shows families’ access to food throughout the benefit month affects how children do in school. We find that students’ reading and math test scores vary based on the amount of time since students received the benefits.

Why might students’ test scores vary at different times in the month? SNAP benefits are typically distributed once a month, and the majority of recipients spend their benefits within the first two weeks. In the second half of the month, families consume fewer calories and eat less protein. As the benefits run out, families also report consuming more prepackaged foods and cheap, less-nutritious carbohydrates. And members of recipient households report being more worried about getting enough food and turning to their friends and family to supplement their grocery budgets.

Our study focused only on end-of-grade achievement tests, but the SNAP benefit cycle occurs every month and thus may very well affect children’s performance in everyday school activities across the entire year. During periods every month when families have less access to food, poor children may struggle more in school because their ability to think or pay careful attention may be reduced by hunger or the reverberations of stressful family conditions.

Even if this only happens for parts of each month, the detrimental effects could accumulate throughout the year, contributing to gaps in school achievement between low-income and high-income children. Test scores are highly correlated with later life outcomes, including college attendance, graduation, and earnings. If test scores and grade-level proficiency vary throughout the month, students’ future education and success in the labor market could be affected.

A prior study from a team of researchers at New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University of North Carolina finds that disciplinary infractions in Chicago public schools are higher toward the end of the month for SNAP recipient students, as compared with non-recipient students. Taken alongside our study, this research suggests that students’ ability to focus and concentrate in school varies based on time since a family receives their SNAP benefits. Our results, combined with other work on this issue, suggest that increasing SNAP amounts would also improve students’ academic outcomes.

Reducing SNAP benefits for families might seem like a money saver in the short term. But the long-term effect on a child’s ability to learn will shortchange our collective future.

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