Nearly half of American children - including 90 percent of black children and 90 percent of children who spend their childhoods in single-parent households - will eat meals paid for by food stamps at some point during childhood, reports a Cornell researcher.
Nearly one-quarter of U.S. children will live in homes that receive food stamps for five or more years. Food stamps are important indicators of poverty and risk of food insecurity, "two of the most detrimental economic conditions affecting a child's health," says Thomas A. Hirschl, Cornell professor of development sociology and co-author of a study published in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (163:11).
The study is based on an analysis of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a 32-year study of about 4,800 U.S. households; it builds on the authors' 2004 research that reported that half of all Americans will use food stamps during adulthood.
"Children in poverty are significantly more likely to experience a range of health problems, including low birth weight, lead poisoning, asthma, mental health disorders, delayed immunization, dental problems and accidental death," write Hirschl and co-author Mark R. Rank of Washington University in St. Louis. "Poverty during childhood is also associated with a host of health, economic and social problems later in life."
It also adds some $22 billion per year in additional health care costs, the researchers report.
And the risk of living in homes using food stamps is far from equitably distributed: Ninety percent of children who live with single parents (compared with 37 percent who live in married and other two-parent households), 90 percent of black children (compared with 37 percent of white children) and 62 percent of those whose head of household did not graduate from high school (compared with 31 percent where the head has more than 12 years of school) "encounter spells of food stamp use," the authors find.
Putting those risk factors together, the researchers found that 97 percent of black children living in non-married households where the household head has less than 12 years of education will have received food stamps, compared with 21 percent of white children living in married households whose head of household has 12 or more years of education.
"The situation is likely bad for children," says Hirschl, "because families eligible for food stamps who participate tend to be worse off nutritionally than eligible families who don't participate." Only about 60 percent of families eligible for food stamps actually participate, he said, because of the stigma associated with government help. Although the sample used is representative of the U.S. populations, it does not reflect the immigrant population.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service, via the Joint Center for Poverty Research, located at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.
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