The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service, or WIC, not only help to protect against negative health outcomes for mothers and infants, each also yields significant dividends for participants in the long term, according to two researchers who authored a new report issued by the Center for American Progress in northwest D.C.
Unfortunately, both programs have come under serious threat by the Trump administration and House Republicans.
At stake is the wellness of pregnant and postpartum mothers and that of their infants, as well as the likelihood that these infants will age into healthy toddlers, teenagers and, ultimately, adults.
Given that people of color — particularly African Americans — already face such high rates of maternal and infant mortality, the Trump administration’s efforts to slash SNAP and WIC will likely be catastrophic for them and will exacerbate the already severe racial disparities in health, maternal and infant mortality, and adult outcomes in the United States, according to a report authored by Eliza Schultz, the research associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, and Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center.
“Access to quality, whole foods and adequate nutrition is an integral part of not only a balanced diet but also a healthy and prosperous life,” the authors wrote. “It is also a pivotal component of maternal and infant health. Unfortunately, food insecurity is a major problem in the United States; today, millions of Americans — a disproportionate share of whom are African American — live and work in geographic areas that lack affordable and nutritious food, and millions more lack the economic resources to afford adequate food in a given month.”
Schultz and Taylor conclude that it’s no coincidence that this problem is most prevalent among African-American families, who continue to experience racial and economic inequality disproportionate to that of any other group in the United States.
“Food insecurity is yet another way that systemic inequality manifests within many African Americans’ daily lives,” Schultz said. “It is also no coincidence that the policies and programs that support adequate nutrition among poor families are currently under threat.
The Trump administration and most House Republicans have proposed deep cuts and structural changes to nutrition assistance programs, even though research has consistently shown that these programs help fill the nutrition and hunger gap for women and children, the authors said.
“If policymakers continue to promote inequality by imposing structural barriers, draconian policy changes and cuts to these programs, poor maternal and infant health outcomes may worsen amid an already dire mortality crisis — particularly among African Americans,” Taylor said.
For the 15.6 million households that face food insecurity — that is, lack reliable access to food that is both nutritious and affordable — as of 2016, a lot is at stake. Food insecurity can lead to physical and mental health problems and can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn and perform in school, potentially leading to lifelong repercussions.
Food insecurity can particularly wreak havoc when it coincides with a woman’s pregnancy, Schultz and Taylor reported. When a pregnant woman is food-insecure, she is at heightened risk of depression as well as unhealthy weight gain and gestational diabetes, they said.
Moreover, an infant exposed to food insecurity in utero is more likely to experience negative health outcomes such as anencephaly — which is almost invariably lethal — an increased risk of vertical HIV transmission from the mother to the child; and low birth weight — which is associated with an increased likelihood of infant mortality and lower educational attainment, higher risk of chronic illnesses, and long-term cognitive and developmental delays.
Food insecurity has also been shown to negatively affect breastfeeding and other infant feeding practices, Schultz and Taylor said in their report.
African American households are disproportionately affected by food insecurity: Nearly one-quarter, or 22.5 percent, were food-insecure in 2016 — nearly double the national average of 12.3 percent and more than twice the 9.3 percent rate for White households.
The average infant mortality rate among high-income countries is 5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the United States, according to reports.
And women in high-income countries die during childbirth at an average rate of 10 per 100,000 live births, whereas in the United States, women die at a rate of 14 per 100,000 live births.
“Fortunately, several food assistance programs in the United States specifically work to mitigate hunger and food insecurity,” the authors said.
SNAP helped about 44 million people per month afford groceries in 2016. Nearly half — or 43 percent — of SNAP households include at least one child.
Monthly benefits in these households are modest at an average of $121 per person — less than $4 per day. Even this level of benefits is critically helpful, however, especially when a family welcomes a new child and tightens its household budgets as a result.
Participation in SNAP has proven to lower the risk of food insecurity. By one estimate, six months’ enrollment in SNAP reduces the likelihood of food insecurity by 30 percent.
Another critical safeguard against hunger that is specifically geared toward maternal and infant health is the WIC program, which offers not just food assistance but also a range of services to expectant and postpartum mothers, including critically important breastfeeding counseling and support services, as well as assistance to young children from infancy up to the age of 5.
Like SNAP, WIC helps to reduce food insecurity — although this is not a core part of its mission — and has a direct, positive impact on both maternal and infant health for the approximately 7 million individuals it serves, Schultz and Taylor said.
“These two programs — SNAP and WIC — not only help to protect against negative health outcomes for mothers and infants; each also yields significant dividends for participants in the long term,” Schultz said.