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The Potential Implications of the False Belief that SNAP Participants are more likely to be Obese than Eligible Non-Participants

Hunger and its accordant consequences were serious problems in the United States 50 years ago. In response, the U.S. government established the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, then known as the Food Stamp Program). Fifty years later, more than one in seven Americans received benefits at a cost of over $75 billion. (See Bartfeld et al., 2015 for an overview of SNAP.) In terms of number of people served and total cost, the program is large; in addition, the benefits received by individuals can be quite large. For example, the monthly maximum benefit level is almost $700 for a family of four. Due to its total size and the importance to individual households, SNAP has become a central component of the social safety net.

In particular, within the safety net, the central goal of SNAP is to alleviate hunger and, in this role, SNAP has been enormously successful. (See Kreider et al., 2012, and references therein.) Along with these direct impacts on food intakes, SNAP has also been found to improve well-being over other dimensions including reductions in poverty (e.g., Tiehen et al. 2012), improvements in birth outcomes (Almond et al. 2011), lower mortality (Krueger et al. 2004), and better general health (Kreider et al. 2012). Moreover, by reducing food insecurity, the negative impacts of food insecurity on various health outcomes are diminished. (See Gundersen and Ziliak, 2015 for a review of these impacts on health.)

It is perhaps relatively noncontroversial to state that SNAP has been successful at improving the well-being of low-income Americans. In recent years, though, there have been some proposals that have sought to change the structure of SNAP such that it becomes, at least in part, an “anti-obesity” program. These proposals have emerged due to a perception that SNAP leads recipients to have higher weights than non-recipients.

It is not clear why people would think SNAP leads to increases in obesity insofar as one doesn’t generally think that increasing someone’s ability to purchase food leads to higher weights. For example, one doesn’t usually think that a pay raise leads to increases in someone’s weight. Along with common sense, virtually all studies indicate that SNAP recipients are no more likely than eligible SNAP non-recipients to be obese, after controlling for selection into the program and other issues. (See Gundersen, 2015 for more on these studies.)

Unfortunately, the lack of any clear evidence that SNAP participants are more likely to be obese than eligible non-participants hasn’t stopped some from proposing restrictions on what can be purchased with SNAP. These proposals are consistent with proposals that have been made since the inception of SNAP. In a broad sense, these proposals over time have been out of a desire to prevent SNAP recipients from purchasing “luxury items” and a desire to stigmatize certain food products. The most recent proposals, though, have concentrated on restricting the purchases of foods that are thought to be associated with obesity.

The most highly publicized and discussed effort to restrict SNAP purchases was contained in a waiver request to USDA by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Human Resources Administration. This waiver request, which was turned down by USDA, would have banned SNAP recipients from using SNAP benefits to purchase most any beverage with more than 10 calories per 8-ounce serving. This ban would have included things such as sports drinks (e.g., Gatorade, Powerade), soda (e.g., Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew), vegetable drinks (e.g., V8), and iced tea drinks. Other products with more than 10 calories per 8-ounce serving would still have been allowed, though, including milk, milk substitutes, and 100 percent fruit juices. There have also been other state-level efforts to ban certain types of purchases including in Maine (no products subject to the state sales tax could be purchased with SNAP) and Wisconsin (a SNAP recipient would have to use two-thirds of their SNAP benefits to purchase not yet defined “healthy foods”).

If restrictions are imposed, there is unlikely to be any change in obesity in the U.S. Instead, the main consequence will be a reduction in the number of SNAP participants. This reduction is due to two factors, stigma and transaction costs. (I concentrate on the former here, for a discussion of the latter, see Gundersen, 2015.) Stigma would increase as participants would feel singled out as being irresponsible and incapable of making well-informed food purchases. More broadly, through its message that adults receiving SNAP are not responsible enough to make their own food choices, recipients would be further stigmatized. After all, the federal government doesn’t tell, say, government employees how to spend their earnings; why do some feel it is fine to tell SNAP recipients what they can purchase? This stigmatization due to restrictions is the central reason why the USDA has rejected proposed restrictions.

Due to increased stigma and increased transactions costs, participation in SNAP will decline as recipients leave the program and potential recipients are less likely to enter the program. (For at least some advocates of SNAP restrictions, this may be their central goal for imposing restrictions.) As a consequence, the positive benefits of SNAP will be realized for fewer Americans and, in particular, there will be an increase in food insecurity and, therefore, increases in negative health outcomes and subsequent health care costs (Tarasuk et al., 2015).

To conclude, there is very little evidence that SNAP is associated with higher probabilities of obesity among participants in comparison to eligible nonparticipants. In contrast, there is clear evidence that (a) SNAP improves the well-being of recipients over numerous dimensions, and (b) imposing restrictions would lead to declines in participation. In light of this evidence, policymakers and program administrators should be reluctant to make fundamental changes to a program like SNAP, one of the most successful government programs in the U.S.

The author acknowledges financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Hatch Project Number 470-331.

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