Nutrition assistance programs help reduce the gap between low wages and basic family needs. They are also an important work support intended
to help families stay healthy and move towards economic independence. However, just when some families become more self-sufficient by earning
even a modest increase in income, their progress can lead to termination of assistance benefits. This creates a gap between basic expenses and total
family resources. Families suffer a substantial net loss by earning more, and struggle, yet again, to buy groceries. In the policy world, this is called the
“cliff effect”—it shows that rather than a steady climb to economic independence, families “fall off a cliff” when they try to climb higher.
Why would earning more make it more difficult for families to pay for basic living expenses? Because the assistance was cut off or reduced
too quickly. We see the effects of this cliff on a regular basis in our clinics and emergency rooms. Among almost 22,000 families with children
under age four in the multi-state Children’s Health Watch dataset, we found that of families who reported they increased their income, 14 percent lost
their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits entirely and 10 percent had their SNAP reduced. Some might think that this means
the system is working as it should—but we see the stark health consequences of the cliff: despite increases in income, family economic hardship increased, and young children’s health and development suffered.
In some cases, children in families whose benefit was reduced had worse health outcomes than those who completely lost their benefit,
potentially because the income increase was very small or temporary, yet the SNAP benefit reduction significantly constrained the family budget.
This result underscores the health consquences of squeezed family resources, creating a situation in which families must make terrible decisions
between paying for some basic needs over others.
Find more in the Children’s Health Watch Report here: