WIC and SNAP: Feeding Kids, Boosting Learning

WIC and SNAP: Feeding Kids, Boosting Learning

Hungry children can have a hard time learning, and poverty during early childhood can have lifelong consequences for children’s physical, mental, and economic well-being. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) fight poverty by helping families to put food on the table — and that’s setting kids up for greater long-term success in school and work, too.

Substantial evidence shows that children’s disadvantages — such as not having enough to eat — during critical periods of brain development can affect their cognitive development and readiness to learn, producing disparities in skills and academic achievement. This research provides a compelling case for investing in children, especially when they’re very young.

WIC is a vital support for very young children and their families during this critical period. Extensive research over the past four decades shows that WIC contributes to positive developmental and health outcomes for low-income women and young children, including healthier births, lower infant mortality, more nutritious diets, and better access to preventive health care like immunizations.

WIC’s positive effects extend to learning. New research links prenatal participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic performance. Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age two than similar children whose mothers didn’t participate. And the benefit lasted into the school years, as children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant performed better on reading assessments.

SNAP also boosts kids’ school performance. A recent analysis that corrects for underreporting of benefits in Census data found that SNAP keeps more people out of “deep poverty” (income at less than half of the poverty line) than any other — and it lifted 10.3 million people, including 4.9 million children, out of poverty in 2012.

A study of what happened when SNAP (then known as food stamps) gradually expanded nationwide in the 1960s and early 1970s found that disadvantaged children who'd had access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had had access during pregnancy had better health and educational outcomes in adulthood than children without access. Among other things, children with access to food stamps were less likely in adulthood to have heart disease or be obese. They also were likelier to graduate from high school.

The economy is improving, but millions of families continue to struggle to afford basic necessities, like food and housing, each day. In shielding children from hunger, WIC and SNAP are helping prepare them to learn — an investment that will pay off for families and the economy in the years to come.

Stacy Dean is vice president of food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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