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Budget Cuts Aren't a SNAP

By David Glenn

Cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) could backfire by actually increasing federal health spending, according to a recent analysis by a team of scholars including Keshia Pollack, PhD '06, MPH, an associate professor in Health Policy and Management.

When millions of Americans found themselves newly unemployed after the Great Recession, many turned to SNAP (the federal Food Stamp program). Its budget more than doubled between 2007 and 2011-drawing attention from congressional budget-cutters. Early in 2014, Congress passed the long-delayed Farm Bill cutting SNAP's budget by $8 billion over 10 years. President Obama signed the bill into law on February 7.

Those proposed cuts could prove to be a serious mistake, even from a fiscal perspective, according to Pollack (above, at the Maryland Food Bank). If SNAP's budget falls too far, she says, we can expect increases in spending on Medicaid and other health programs. As low-income Americans lose secure access to nutritious food, Pollack says, they will be more likely to need expensive health treatments for diet-related diseases such as diabetes. Families may also be more likely to forgo preventive health care as their food budgets tighten.

"We see $15 billion in potential diabetes-related costs, which would really offset many of the savings that they're considering in Congress," Pollack says. Her analysis was conducted with colleagues at the Health Impact Project, a Washington-based nonprofit collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

John T. Cook, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University who was not involved in Pollack's study, says: "Our studies have consistently shown that children in SNAP households are significantly more likely to have their health reported as 'good' or 'excellent' than children in otherwise-similar families that don't receive SNAP benefits.

"And that, in turn, means that they're less likely to need hospitalization or ambulatory-care services," he says.

Pollack emphasizes that her team's report does not make recommendations about whether SNAP benefits should be cut. "We simply want policymakers to be aware of the potential population-health effects and distribution of those effects within a population," she says, "and to start thinking about ways to mitigate the adverse effects and optimize the beneficial ones.