By Sara Buckingham, MA (Public Interest Policy Scholar, APA Public Interest Government Relations Office)
How do you decide between heating your apartment, purchasing lifesaving medication, and eating?
As of April 1, up to 1 million more Americans will face that decision.
Who is affected by hunger?
Nearly 50 million Americans – including one of every five children – are at risk of going hungry (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, & Singha, 2015). Our largest and most effective solution to hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or ‘food stamps’). SNAP provides food assistance to people below a certain income level, helping to prevent hunger. This assistance also frees up their income for other necessities, such as housing, utilities, and health care.
Why are so many people now losing SNAP benefits?
Under the current law, adults who are ‘fit for work’ and not caring for a child can only access SNAP for 3 months in a 36-month period, unless they are:
- working or in a training program at least half-time or
- in a state with a particularly high unemployment rate.
Prior to 2016, most U.S. states qualified for this unemployment exemption, but now, due to lower unemployment rates, only 10 states qualify, and 3 of them are doing away with the exemption voluntarily. However, lower state unemployment rates do not represent everyone’s day-to-day experiences. Chronically unemployed people have given up looking for work, skewing employment data, and local unemployment rates vary widely within states.
States with Newly Reimposed SNAP Time Limits in 2016
a 19 states are required to reimpose the time limit: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington.
b Three states are voluntarily reimposing the time limit: Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
c 7 states and the District of Columbia currently qualify for an exemption to the time limit: California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.
d All other states imposed the time limit prior to 2016, either due to no longer qualifying or voluntarily doing away with the exemption.
Why is hunger a health problem?
Hunger is a debilitating condition and plenty of research demonstrates its harms:
- Physical – hunger is associated with higher infant mortality rates, vulnerability to illnesses and infections, and impaired physical development. It is also associated with chronic diseases, including hypertension, abnormally elevated levels of lipids in the blood, and cardiovascular health issues (Seligman, Laraia, & Kushel, 2009).
- Cognitive – hunger alters mental functioning and can even stunt intellectual capacity (Gundersen, Kreider, & Pepper, 2011).
- Emotional – hunger impacts psychological well-being. One study even shows that families’ lack of sufficient food, irrespective of their income, is associated with persistent depressive disorder and suicidality in adolescents (Alaimo, Olson, & Frongillo, 2002).
- Socioeconomics – hunger has wide-reaching effects. For example, children who are hungry perform worse in schools, and people of all ages perform worse on tests, with negative implications for future economic success (Gundersen, Kreider, & Pepper 2011). As with any scarce resource, people who are hungry spend their mental energy on their hunger, which can narrow their focus and lead them to neglect other areas of their home or work lives (Shah, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2012).
What can Congress do to address this problem?
- Revise the rule so that unemployed individuals diligently searching for jobs qualify for SNAP benefits
- Expand the time-limit on benefits to better reflect the typical unemployment period. Over the past year, the average length of unemployment has ranged from 7 to 8 months (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). In 2002 and 2008, bills were introduced in the Senate to do this (S. 1731, S. 2302).
There are a number of solutions to this crisis, but our government must act quickly to return SNAP benefits to up to one million people who will lose them this year. You can help! Join APA’s Federal Action Network to participate in our public policy advocacy efforts.
Alaimo, K., Olson, C. M., & Frongillo, E. A. (2002). Family food insufficiency, but not low family income, is positively associated with dysthymia and suicide symptoms in adolescents. The Journal of Nutrition, 132, 719-725.
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C., & Singha, A. (2015). Household food security in the United States in 2014 (Report Number 194). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1896841/err194.pdf.
Gundersen, C., Kreider, B., & Pepper, J. (2011). The economics of food insecurity in the United States. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 33, 281-303.
Seligman, H. K., Laraia, B. A., & Kushel, M. B. (2010). Food insecurity is associated with chronic disease among low-income NHANES participants. The Journal of Nutrition, 140, 304-310. doi:10.3945/jn.109.112573
Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2012). Some consequences of having too little. Science, 338, 682-685. doi:10.1126/science.1222426
U.S. Department of Labor. (2016). Unemployed persons by duration of unemployment. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm.