Food stamps have long been at the heart of a bitter political debate about the government's role in social services and the underlying problems affecting low-income Americans and their wellbeing.
A new study sheds more light on that problem—and raises many new questions. Tufts University researchers found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to die early than the average American. These recipients have incomes at 130 percent below the poverty line or more—a household of two would quality if they are making $1,736 a month or less combined.
The study, published this week in the American Journal for Public Health, said Americans enrolled in the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, were significantly more likely to die of cardiovascular disease and were three times more likely to die of diabetes. The SNAP program serves 44.5 million people, according to a USDA budget summary.
The study comes after years of cuts to the SNAP program from a Republican-controlled Congress, and there's a much greater threat to the budget this year. GOP legislators could push for major changes to the program this budget year, after the House Agriculture Committee released a report that considered some states' eligibility requirements for SNAP benefits too loose, the Associated Press reported. Congress also cut $9 billion from SNAP in 2014.
The study authors warned readers not to confuse association with causation. "It is important to note that our study does not examine cause-and-effect and whether or not SNAP participation itself increases the risk of mortality," said Zach Conrad, former postdoctoral fellow in nutritional epidemiology at the Friedman School and corresponding author, said in a release.
They noted that even individuals who were eligible for SNAP benefits based on their income level who did not take the food stamps were more likely to die than an average person.
"Rather, our investigation demonstrates that Americans on SNAP are dying at higher rates, emphasizing the need for strong efforts to improve their health. It is plausible that these individuals, if they did not participate in SNAP, might have even worse health outcomes."
The study looked at 499,741 people at least 25 years old who completed the 2000 to 2009 National Health Interview Survey. Follow-ups were done that recorded whenever a respondent died and of what cause.
The authors suggested part of the problem could be that people with poor health are more apt to accept help from the government. They also noted SNAP participants tend to buy cheaper, less nutritious food, and efforts need to be made to encourage the consumption of more produce and less processed food.
"Compared with nonparticipants, SNAP participants are more likely to have children or other family members with developmental delays or functional limitations, and are more likely to report forgoing medical care because of financial hardship," the study stated.
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