The United States government commits significant resources to combatting food insecurity, especially through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), yet the rates of insecurity remain high. Rigorous research is critical to inform policy efforts and improve program effectiveness. A recent review by Gundersen and Ziliak (2018) usefully summarizes the advances in research on food insecurity and health, and highlights empirical challenges and gaps in extant literature. Of particular concern is the largely associational nature of this research, raising concerns about endogeneity and causation. Similar concerns exist regarding related research on SNAP and its potential to improve children's wellbeing.
This panel includes three papers that contribute important policy-relevant findings to this discussion. All use nationally representative data. The first paper examines relationships between food insecurity, maternal depression, and children's outcomes. By examining diverse ways that depression and food insecurity operate in combination and over time, while taking account of an extensive set of covariates, the paper attends to the complexity of family circumstances and advances understanding of bi-directional influences between food insecurity and mental health.
The second and third papers consider whether children in families who participate in SNAP fare better than comparable peers on measures of early childhood development and health. As noted, selection is an important challenge of studies in this area. Indeed, because disadvantaged families are both more likely to rely on SNAP and experience negative outcomes than their more advantaged peers, there is a risk of observing spurious relationships. A strength of these two papers is their methodology: they employ fixed effects methods as a means of addressing selection concerns.
The second paper assesses the relationship between SNAP and children's cognitive and socioemotional wellbeing, two measures related to academic achievement. The study then explores whether nutritional intake is one pathway through which SNAP exerts its influence on children's outcomes. The third paper examines SNAP's relationship to childhood obesity. It considers the joint relationship between the duration of SNAP use and neighborhood disadvantage, finding that SNAP is related to lower incidences of obesity at diverse developmental stages, especially when children reside in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
A DC-based policy researcher and practitioner, who is an expert on food and hunger policy, will discuss the implications of the three papers, with particular attention to their relevance to current federal proposals to reform the SNAP program.