When members of Congress debate whether to slash the food stamp program, they should ask if they really want more small children arriving at school having skipped breakfast.
As it is, in the last few days of the month before food stamps are distributed, some children often eat less and have trouble focusing, says Kisha Hill, a teacher in a high-poverty prekindergarten school in North Tulsa, Okla.
“Kids can’t focus on studying when their stomachs are grumbling,” Hill told me.
Some 47 million Americans receive food stamps, including some who would otherwise go hungry — or hungrier. A recent government study found that about 5 percent of American households have “very low food security,” which means that food can run out before the end of the month. In almost a third of those households, an adult reported not eating for an entire day because there wasn’t money for food.
Meanwhile, 14 percent of American toddlers suffer iron deficiency. Malnutrition isn’t the only cause, but it’s an important one — and these children may suffer impaired brain development as a result. This kind of malnutrition in America is tough to measure, because some children are simultaneously malnourished and overweight, but experts agree it’s a problem. We expect to find malnourished or anemic children in Africa and Asia, but it’s dispiriting to see this in a country as wealthy as our own.
Let me take that back. It’s not just dispiriting. It’s also infuriating.
“The cutback in food stamps represents a clear threat to the nutritional status and health of America’s children,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, the president of the Children’s Health Fund and a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University. Redlener said that one result of cutbacks would be more kids with anemia and educational difficulties.
Food stamp recipients already took a cut in benefits this month, and they may face more. The Senate Democratic version of the farm bill would cut food stamps by $4 billion over 10 years, while the House Republican version would slash them by $40 billion.
More than 90 percent of benefits go to families living below the poverty line, according to federal government data, and nearly two-thirds of the recipients are children, elderly or disabled.
Let’s remember that the government already subsidizes lots of food. When wealthy executives dine at fancy French restaurants, part of the bill is likely to be deducted from taxes, which amounts to a subsidy from taxpayers. How is it that food subsidies to anemic children are more controversial than food subsidies to executives enjoying coq au vin?
Meanwhile, the same farm bill that is hotly debated because of food stamps includes agricultural subsidies that don’t go just to struggling farmers but also, in recent years, to 50 billionaires or companies they are involved in, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research group.
Among the undeserving people receiving farm subsidies has been a New York Times columnist. Yes, I have been paid $588 a year not to grow crops on wooded land I own in Oregon (I then forward the money to a maternity hospital in Somaliland). When our country pays a New York journalist not to grow crops in an Oregon forest, there’s a problem with the farm bill — but it’s not food stamps.
Granted, safety-net spending is more about treating symptoms of poverty than causes, and we may get more bang for the buck when we chip away at long-term poverty through early education, home visitation for infants, job training and helping teenagers avoid unwanted pregnancies.
That said, food stamps do work in important ways. For starters, they effectively reduce the number of children living in extreme poverty by half, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
By improving nutrition of young children, food stamps also improve long-term outcomes. In recent years, mounting scholarship has found that malnutrition in utero or in small children has lasting consequences.
One reason seems to be that when a fetus or small child is undernourished, it is programmed to anticipate food shortages for the remainder of its life. If food later becomes plentiful, the metabolic mismatch can lead to diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
An excellent study last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research followed up on the rollout of food stamps, county by county, between 1961 and 1975. It found that those who began receiving food stamps by the age of 5 had better health as adults. Women who as small children had benefited from food stamps were more likely to go farther in school, earn more money and stay off welfare.
So slashing food stamp benefits — overwhelmingly for children, the disabled and the elderly — wouldn’t be a sign of prudent fiscal management by Congress. It would be a mark of shortsighted cruelty.