Nutrition Assistance Is Key Support for Children in Working Families with Low Wages

by Ruth Ehresman, Vision for Children at Risk

I am certain that I learned more than my students did during my first year of teaching.  I was a science/math/religion/music teacher in a small high school in North St. Louis.  I worked hard, hoping my students would learn Chemistry and Math, would grow in self-esteem, and would love music.

I learned what daily life looked like from a perspective vastly different from my growing up years on a small farm. I learned what it was like to live out of a suitcase, to live in a dark, cold house without electricity or gas service, to experience condescension or outright cruelty stemming from racism, and to arrive at school with an empty stomach. Although vicarious, those learnings created a lifelong passion to assure that children have what they need to grow up healthy and to reach their full potential.

Food is the most basic of our human needs. Yet far too many Missourians experience food insecurity, a lack of consistent access to adequate food.  One of every 6 Missouri children experiences food insecurity.

That means those children are at risk for poorer health outcomes, are more likely to experience obesity, and miss more days of school.  Harmful impact occurs during their development years, as well as in adulthood.

The good news is that we have an effective tool to alleviate hunger. The most effective anti-hunger support we have is the SNAP program, Supplemental  Nutrition Assistance Program. 

SNAP by the numbers

Fortunately, after rancorous discussion among the House and Senate in Washington DC, the Farm Bill was stripped of harmful proposals to limit benefits and create a greater stigma for families who participate in SNAP. The bill was approved by both houses of Congress and signed by President Trump.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now proposing regulations to make it more difficult for states to obtain waivers for work requirements in areas of high unemployment.

There have been legislative proposals filed in the Missouri legislature that create stricter guidelines and penalties for those on SNAP. When a family is forced off of SNAP, children are adversely impacted.

Why are work tracking requirements a cause for concern?

Children and families could be unjustly punished.  Under the work tracking requirements proposal, someone working 20 hours per week as a janitor could miss a week of work to take care of a sick child and, as a result, would get penalized and risk losing their SNAP benefits. That’s not good for families and not good for children.

Sanctioning adults for not working also harms children in the sanctioned families. The proposal calls for the sanctioning of the parents’ portion of SNAP benefits when they do not meet the documentation requirements. This will hurt the health and well-being of children because taking away a portion of SNAP benefits means the entire household has less to eat, including the children. 

Taking food resources away from families already struggling to meet basic needs makes the life of the entire family more difficult.  Malnutrition complicates many illnesses, increases the chance of relapse for persons recovering from addictions, and is associated with maternal depression as well as negative outcomes for both adult and children. 

SNAP benefits have been shown to have a significant positive impact on child well-being outcomes including reduced food insecurity, lower rates of infant mortality and low birthweight, better health in children and fewer school absences and better economic outcomes as adults.

Many have raised concerns with the ability of the Department of Social Services to implement the proposal without receiving additional substantial funding or without diverting funds away from programs that currently serve families with children. If the proposal is not well implemented or proper supports are not provided, families may be erroneously or unjustly sanctioned. If the funds for programs that currently help families and children are diverted to pay for administrative costs of the proposal, then families will lose access to those programs that help them succeed. It’s a no-win situation. Vision for Children at Risk believes that scarce resources would be better spent on benefits than on attempting to track work requirements.

Loss of SNAP benefits will have an economic impact not only on families, but also on the economy of communities.  According to the USDA, each dollar of SNAP benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity.  SNAP is a positive benefit for families and the communities in which they live. 

It would be prudent for the Missouri legislature to consider the realities of the SNAP program and the ability of the Department of Social Services to track work.  They should put aside ineffective efforts to fix a nutritional support that largely serves children and parents in working families that is not broken. 

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