KU research finds association between a state’s generosity with food benefits, child welfare

Updated: Jul 23

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, said a 50-state research project showed an association between a state’s generosity of food stamp benefits and propensity for children to end up in foster care. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — University of Kansas researchers and colleagues at two other universities reported every 5 percent increase in enrollment in the federal nutrition assistance program for low-income families could reduce the number of children a state placed in foster care or protective services from 7.6 percent to 14.3 percent.

The 50-state study of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, indicated an association between state-by-state policy decisions guiding enrollment in SNAP and movement of children into programs designed to protect their welfare. The study covering 2004 to 2016 found states with more generous SNAP policies had fewer children in child protective services and foster care.

The findings published in the journal JAMA Network Open suggested increasing availability and stability of SNAP may unlock population health returns by preventing child neglect or maltreatment and reducing costly government intervention.

In Kansas, eligibility for SNAP was narrowed under the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback during a period in which the volume of children in foster care grew to record levels. Brownback joined with legislators in arguing reform was necessary for states to help people break cycles of dependency.

“Having access to the social safety net has an effect on child abuse,” said Donna Ginther, professor of economics at KU. “With so many children in low-income households, poverty is what typically gets people more engaged with child protective services.”

The 2022 Legislature declined an attempt by Democrats and social service organizations to repeal some regulatory obstacles in Kansas to securing SNAP aid. The Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly did adopt a law to gradually eliminate the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries.

Ginther said reducing sales tax on groceries contributed to reduction in food insecurity among low-income households in the same way broadening access to SNAP could curtail food insecurity.

The work by researchers at KU, Ohio State University and University of Maryland was funded by a 2016 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers controlled for other factors influencing child protective services caseloads, including the opioid epidemic.

“Previous researchers have shown that if you give people a social safety net when they’re children, then in the long run, those kids do better,” said Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research. “They get more education and are more likely to work and be productive members of society. So you can think of the SNAP program as an investment in the future.”

This article was used by permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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