The Food Stamp Vaccine

What if there were a vaccine against the harmful effects of hunger? According to researchers at Children's HealthWatch, there is. But these vaccines aren't shots or sprays. They're food stamps.

Unlike other vaccines, these certainly aren't a high priority for many lawmakers. In September, the House of Representatives voted for $40 billion in cuts over ten years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Regardless, on November 1, the 13 percent increase to SNAP benefits from the 2009 stimulus expires. This means a family of three will have $29 less per month -- and live on only $1.40 per person per meal.

This is dangerous. Like a vaccine, food stamps protect young children against immediate and future disease. "The right immunizations in the right doses at the right time save untold health and education dollars, not to mention personal anguish and pain," Children's HealthWatch wrote in their 2012 report, The SNAP Vaccine. "Hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. also endanger the bodies and brains of millions of children."

Hunger cracks open a fault line in a child's life. Like a vaccine, food stamps are especially critical in a child's first years. Without enough food, kids are at an increased risk for delays in motor skills and cognitive deficits.

When kids don't get this vaccine, they don't only suffer damage to their bodies. They also suffer damage to their life chances. By third grade, kids who went hungry in kindergarten pay, on average, a 13 percent penalty in reading and math scores. By age 11, food-insufficient children are more likely to have lower test scores, have repeated a grade, been suspended, and had trouble making friends.

There's little mystery why. But researchers at Cornell and the National Center for Health Statistics wanted to dig deeper. They analyzed data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Kids from food-insufficient families had more stomachaches, headaches, and colds. They were generally in poorer health. And they didn't deal with food-insufficiency in a vacuum. They also dealt with the environmental risks of poverty.

Children's HealthWatch piles on additional evidence -- and provides a stark forecast for what may happen because of the cuts to SNAP. They analyzed the health records of 17,000 young children. These children were admitted to an emergency room or a hospital between 2004 and 2010. The researchers compared the health of children who received food stamps with children who did not. Kids who did not receive food stamps were more likely to be underweight and suffer from developmental delays. It gets worse. The kids who did not receive food stamps, according to Children's HealthWatch, were likely eligible for them. Their malnutrition and developmental issues were preventable.

Like most vaccines, food stamps are especially important for our most vulnerable citizens: children and the elderly. But the new House bill seeks to slash the funding for food stamps in half. These cuts don't only threaten their health. They also strangely take shots at their character.

The House bill tries to criminalize populations who need food stamps, stacking drug testing onto the requirements for food. Of course, we know that drug testing of welfare recipients is an absurd exercise. Arizona, for example, tested nearly 87,000 people over three years. They caught one person and saved $560. Virginia, more wisely, abandoned their welfare drug testing program, once they realized it would cost them more than six times what they'd save. Still, it presents us with a thought experiment: would we refuse a MMR shot for the child of a drug user? If food stamps provide vaccine-like protection against disease, don't we have a moral obligation to provide it, regardless of a parent's recreational drug habit?

Budgets are not only fiscal plans. They are moral ones. They document what -- and who -- is valuable. Food stamps prevent health problems and promote healthy lives for poor children. Why should their lives be any less nurtured?

This blog originally appeared on October 7, 2013 at PLOS Public Health Perspectives.