How Children Could Suffer From a Weaker Safety Net

A look at how fiscal cliff compromises could affect young people—and by extension, the country's economic future

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Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

As negotiations to avert the "fiscal cliff" grind on, one thing seems clear: Deal or no deal, the social safety net is going to look very different in the years to come. The specifics of a deal remain murky, but everything from Medicaid to Medicare to Social Security to food stamps to education spending is reported to be vulnerable.

In an article here a few weeks ago, Helaine Olen explained why women, who are disproportionately likely to be poor and reliant on government programs, are particularly vulnerable to social safety net cuts. A new paper suggests one more reason, and also offers evidence on how cuts to programs that target early childhood will impact those children for decades to come. Researchers Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond analyzed the long-term effects of the introduction of the U.S. Food Stamp program in the 1960s and early 1970s. They found that women who had access to food stamps in early childhood scored better on measures of economic self-sufficiency decades later. Children of both genders, meanwhile, were less likely to battle metabolic syndrome—the group of risk factors that increase a person's chances of getting heart disease and diabetes—later in life.

"It speaks to the intergenerational transfer of welfare idea—sometimes people claim that one of the downsides of welfare is when you see your parents on it, then you're more likely to go on it," explains Schanzenbach. "We find the opposite—I think it's the best evidence I've seen on it. There's more resources for you and your kid—you're better able to invest in health and nutrition."

While the paper is one of the first to focus on the long-term effects of early childhood exposure to the social safety net (in this case, food stamps), a number of other studies have found that the effects of early childhood interventions differ by gender—and are larger for girls. For example, a 2008 analysis of early education programs implemented in the 1960's and 1970's found that girls in the programs enjoyed short- and long-term benefits, while boys experienced no such gains.

"For females, the thing that's really striking is that there were large effects on educational attainment—whether or not they graduated high school and, to a lesser extent, whether or not they had gone to college," says Michael Anderson, the study's author. "There were also weakly positive effects on economic measures—like whether or not you were unemployed or received welfare transfers, and so forth." Anderson found no such effects for the boys in the programs.

A 2007 paper analyzing the effects of a housing voucher program in the 1990s found that moving to better neighborhoods had positive effects on education, risky behavior, and physical health for girls, but adverse affects for boys. Meanwhile, research in Indonesia on the effect of positive agricultural shocks in early childhood also found greater effects on economic, education, and health outcomes for girls than boys.

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Dwyer Gunn is a freelance journalist and the co-editor of the Freakonomics website.

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