Good News and Bad News for Our Poorest Families
April 13 2012
By Kara D. Ryan, Senior Research Analyst, Health Policy Project
This week, when it comes to Latino families’ nutrition and well-being, we have good news and bad news. First, the good news: economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new report showing that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) plays a definitive role in reducing the depth and severity of poverty, particularly among children. That means something a little different from the fact that SNAP lifts people (nearly four million in 2010) out of poverty, which is a critical measure of the program’s success, but not the whole picture.
Think of a family—say, two parents and a young child—with a household income far below the federal poverty line (this year, about $19,100 for a family of three). Our family is having trouble paying for the basics—the rent is due at the same time as the electric bill, and there’s not much left over to feed our parents and kid. Maybe Mami starts skipping breakfast so there will be more for her child, or buys inexpensive, filling foods to stretch a couple of dollars into a meal for three people. After enrolling in SNAP, the family has more resources at the grocery store, so they can pick up not only more food, but also afford the fresher, more nutritious items that are usually priced higher than the calorie-dense stuff. Since they’re not spending as much income on food, they have more money left to meet their needs—or to just keep up with rising food and energy costs.
In this example, even if our family is still living in poverty, SNAP did help to make the family better off. Thanks to SNAP, their income situation becomes less dire—a change which is most effective at the lowest income levels. That is another important measure of SNAP’s effectiveness. In particular, researchers found that SNAP made the biggest difference in 2009—the year that Congress, in light of the economic recession, passed a temporary boost to benefit levels to help low-income families keep their heads above water.
This is a big deal for Latino families, who like many Americans are struggling to give their kids healthy meals on a limited budget. More than one in four Latinos lives in poverty (a rate that is even higher under an alternative measure, NCLR found last year). And more than five million Latinos—about one in ten—live below 50% of the federal poverty level, among the very poor that the USDA report shows have the most to gain from SNAP participation. When we talked to Latinos from different parts of the country about what helped or hurt their access to healthy food for themselves and their children, SNAP came up repeatedly as crucial not only in helping families buy more food, but also in helping them afford better quality, nutritious food.
So what’s the bad news? Politicians are continuing efforts to drastically cut SNAP (and other critical programs’) eligibility and funding. Why is a program that has consistently proven its worth always such a popular political target? SNAP is helping to better the well-being of millions of the working poor and their families. This includes a significant number of Latinos—and could include a whole lot more (an estimated one-quarter of people eligible but not participating in SNAP are Hispanic) if resources were better spent looking at ways to extend the program’s reach to more people in need.
Issues: Health, Health and Nutrition, Healthy Foods, Healthy Families
Geography:California, Far West, Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Texas