People are a little less likely to die prematurely if they receive federal food assistance, according to a new study looking at benefits receipt and death records.
The findings come as U.S. policymakers are grappling with rising numbers of “deaths of despair,” such as those from drug overdoses and suicide, and an overall decline in U.S. life expectancy.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has been pushing food benefit cuts that could affect millions.
The new research, published in the November edition of the journal Health Affairs, found that participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, reduced the risk of premature mortality by as much as 2 percentage points among people younger than 65 from 1999 through 2011.
“At a time when we’re thinking about restricting access to SNAP and its generosity, our [study] speaks to the importance of SNAP to such basic outcomes as mortality,” Colleen Heflin, a professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said in an interview.
Heflin co-authored the paper with Ph.D. candidate Samuel Ingram and faculty member James Ziliak at the University of Kentucky.
The raw data on death rates for people who received SNAP suggests that benefit recipients actually had higher mortality rates. But using what’s known as regression analysis, the study controlled for other factors, such as health and income levels, that obscured the impact of the federal assistance.
Looking specifically at deaths of despair ― from drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and suicide ― the researchers found that SNAP benefits cut the mortality rate in half, from 1.64% to 0.81%, for people ages 40 to 64. Heflin cautioned, however, that deaths from those specific causes remain less frequent overall, meaning a smaller sample size and more caution about their results.
Deaths of despair have risen sharply since 2000, thanks partly to the opioid epidemic, with an especially pronounced increase among white Americans between 45 and 54 years old.
“The recent increase has primarily been driven by an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdoses, but even excluding those deaths, the combined mortality rate from suicides and alcohol-related deaths is higher than at any point in more than 100 years,” the congressional Joint Economic Committee said in a September report.
More than 36 million Americans received SNAP aid as of August, with monthly benefits averaging about $121 per person. The program reduces material hardship by helping people buy food. Congress began expanding its predecessor, the food stamp program, during the Nixon administration, partly in response to outrage over small children literally starving to death.
The Trump administration has been pushing regulations that would trim benefit levels and reduce overall enrollment by about 9%. Republicans complain that SNAP benefits make people unwilling to take low-wage jobs (and risk losing their benefits) and that some beneficiaries don’t actually need help.
The proposed cuts are still being finalized and will likely trigger lawsuits from congressional Democrats and anti-hunger groups.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.