Unemployment in the United States is at its lowest point in 50 years. The economy is expanding and employers are hiring. After years of stagnation, wages are finally rising — and they're rising fastest among the lowest-paid workers. Across the country, state and city lawmakers have pushed the minimum wage as high as $15 or $16 per hour, more than double the federal minimum wage.
Ordinarily, this would all be good news for working families. But as a new study suggests, even small month-to-month increases in income can have unintended consequences for households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly known as food stamps — to keep their fridge and cabinets stocked.
Families with young children who experience a reduction or cutoff in SNAP benefits because of increased income are more likely to experience food insecurity and report poor health following the benefit change, according to the study, which was published in the journal Health Affairs.
"These findings raise serious concerns about abrupt SNAP reductions and cutoffs for families whose income fluctuates," says lead study author Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, MPH, executive director of Children's HealthWatch, a national network of pediatricians and researchers based at Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). "The economic hardships these families face can take a serious toll on child and caregiver health, including through high levels of stress, inadequate nutrition, and compromised immune systems, leading to increased strain on the health care system."
From 2007 to 2015, Children's HealthWatch surveyed over 8,500 families in five U.S. cities who had participated in SNAP in the previous year. Of those families, 20% reported a reduction in SNAP benefits because of an increase in their income, while 16% reported benefits being cut off because of increased income. Compared to families with consistent SNAP benefit levels, those whose benefits were reduced or cut off were more likely to experience economic hardships, including food insecurity and energy insecurity. They were also more likely to forgo healthcare for family members because they could not afford it.
In addition, families whose benefits were reduced were more likely than their counterparts — including families who lost their SNAP benefits entirely — to report negative health outcomes, including children and caregivers being in fair or poor health and maternal depressive symptoms. Researchers say this seemingly counterintuitive finding could be explained by the possibility that income increases large enough to result in a cutoff may help buffer families from some hardships.
SNAP serves as a buffer against food insecurity for millions of low-income Americans. Food insecurity and other economic hardships have been associated with negative health, developmental, behavioral, and educational issues for children and their caregivers. The majority of SNAP participants with children have earned income. However, SNAP benefits are calculated on the previous month's income, and many low-wage workers have unstable working hours, seasonal jobs, or sporadic overtime hours that can result in unpredictable income fluctuations. When family income increases, it can trigger rapid reductions or termination of SNAP benefits.
The research team argues policymakers should consider ways to make SNAP reductions less abrupt for working families and to smooth the transition out of receiving benefits so that families have a chance to stabilize financially.
"Policymakers could take into account the timing and amount of income increases over a longer period to provide a more realistic picture of family employment and income stability," says Deborah A. Frank, MD, the founder of Children's HealthWatch and a professor of pediatrics at BUSM. "The unintended impacts on child health of benefit loss immediately following potentially short-lived income increases are too great for us to continue with the status quo."