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Federal food assistance program may help prevent child abuse: study

The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) not only allows more than 39 million Americans to avoid food insecurity, but it may also help prevent child maltreatment, a new study has found.

States with more generous SNAP policies — and therefore more program participants — had fewer children involved in Child Protective Services and foster care, according to the 14-year nationwide survey, published in JAMA Network Open on Wednesday.

A 5 percent increase in the number of families receiving SNAP benefits resulted in a 7.6-14.3 percent decrease in the number of CPS and foster care caseloads, the study determined.

“We knew that SNAP had an important role in alleviating food insecurity and hunger among children,” lead author Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, a professor of social work at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

“Our findings suggest that investments in SNAP may be of even greater value to the health of children than we knew,” she added.

About 37 percent of US children undergo a CPS investigation in response to a referral for child abuse by their 18th birthday, while more than 250,000 children enter foster care each year, according to the study.

The results of the study are particularly important right now, as federal COVID-19 emergency funds that had boosted SNAP benefits are set to expire this month, the authors noted.

In Ohio alone, about 700,000 low-income households will see reductions in SNAP benefits if the emergency declaration expires, they said.

“That could add a lot of stress to families with limited resources who rely on the program to help provide meals,” Johnson-Motoyama said. “Our study suggests that could harm children and increase the workload of CPS workers.”

To draw their conclusions, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis that assessed how state SNAP policies were related to CPS and foster care outcomes over time, from 2004 through 2016.

While the federal government finances SNAP benefits, states have discretion as to how they implement the program and determine eligibility, Johnson-Motoyama noted.

States with more policies that increased eligibility ended up with fewer children involved in CPS and foster care, according to the study.

And those effects were cumulative — the implementation of multiple policies had greater impacts than any individual policy, Johnson-Motoyama explained.

“So the more generous states were, the bigger impact they had in reducing CPS and foster care caseloads,” she added.

States that had higher income generosity policies — those that raise income eligibility limits so that low-income working families can qualify — experienced a decrease in the number of child abuse reports from 557 to 158 per 100,000 children.

“We were particularly surprised by how robust the findings were to other potential factors that could have explained these effects,” Johnson-Motoyama said.

SNAP policies, she continued, had the most powerful impact even when the researchers accounted for other factors like the opioid epidemic or other safety net programs.

“What this suggests to policymakers is to pay greater attention to increasing access to SNAP benefits,” Johnson-Motoyama said.

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