SNAP, WIC, and HIP: Programs of Benefit

Historically, the messaging around government food assistance programs has been muddy. The data are clear, however: Benefits for individuals and communities are significant.

Government food assistance programs often carry a negative connotation. Even their common nickname of “welfare programs” is laced with stigma. Participants have faced public ire. Critics of the programs often lob racialized stereotypes at them (e.g., the welfare queen) while debating whether or not they are “deserving” enough.

And yet, millions of Americans rely on these programs to survive. They’re proven to work, too. Government food assistance programs not only address food insecurity but also promote healthier diets, contribute to economic stability, and support community well-being. This post will review 3 major government food programs, discussing what they are as well as their connections to individual and community health.

What is SNAP?

The most well-known, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a federal program that provides financial nutrition benefits to households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP gives participants money every month on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to purchase food. However, other essential items like toiletries and household cleaners cannot be purchased.

A participant’s benefit amount is capped, and based on factors such as income, household size, and expenses. SNAP recipients must be American citizens and, barring government sanctioned reasons, will have to work up to 80 hours each month if they are between 16-59 years old.

In April 2023, over 22 million households received SNAP benefits, with an average of $343 per month per household.

What is WIC?

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is another federal program. Specifically designed for pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children up to the age of five, the program provides both money for food and health care connections.

Participants must have an income below 185% of the FPL and a health professional or state agency must determine that they’re at nutritional risk. WIC is available regardless of immigration or citizenship status.

WIC offers a restricted food package letting people purchase pre-approved items such as infant formula, dairy products, and whole grains. State agencies also offer health-related services for participants, including connections to other social services and educational materials.

While more than six million people received the benefit in April 2023, less than 60% of people eligible for WIC were enrolled in it.

What is HIP?

While many folks are familiar with SNAP and WIC, Massachusetts’ (MA) Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) is less known. HIP gives all SNAP recipients in MA additional money each month to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at certain farmers markets and farm stands in the state.

HIP began in 2011 as a pilot partnership program between state and federal food assistance programs. A first of its kind in the country, the pilot was successful and HIP became an official state program in 2017. Being the first program of its kind to develop, we know more about it than similar programs that started in other states later.

Since the program’s inception, more than 280,000 MA residents have utilized the program at 676 authorized locations. While those numbers may sound high, in 2021 alone, there were actually around 929,000 SNAP participants in the state. In other words, there is still plenty of room to grow.

Individual-level impacts

The impacts of government food assistance programs are most obvious at the individual level. The programs allow families to get more food, and better food. This benefits many folks with compounding expenses, like those living with disabilities for instance, leaving more money for expenses like utility bills, rent, or car maintenance.

HIP also provides more money for individuals to purchase fruits and vegetables in their local communities. This means more avenues for people to have healthy dietary options, potentially reducing health care costs.

There is a lot of discussion about the health impacts of SNAP on child and household malnutrition. This makes sense, as food insecurity is linked to many things, from the development of chronic conditions in children to increased risk of mental illness in adults. Individuals may still experience these poor outcomes when food insecurity is episodic or rare.

Beyond the food benefits, having an EBT card gives people better access to cultural hubs. For instance, in MA, EBT card holders can get into a number of museums for free or at a reduced rate. Colorado has a similar program. SNAP participants can also get admission fee waivers for college or a reduced cost Amazon Prime Membership.

Community-level impacts

Beyond the individual, these programs also positively impact communities.

At an economic level, food security programs increase the amount of goods or services that can be acquired by lower income people. This translates to community-level economic gains. For every $1.00 spent on SNAP and HIP, about $1.50 and $1.70 is generated in economic activity, respectively. Every $1.00 in WIC spending translates to about $2.50 in medical, education, and productivity savings.

HIP has also funneled millions of dollars to local farmers as a vendor-restricted program. Economic activity aside, HIP fosters a sense of community with its local emphasis.

Broadly speaking, food insecurity can significantly increase individual stress. High rates of stress lead to a host of negative outcomes for individuals, eventually spilling over into communities. This may be why some research finds that communities with lower rates of food insecurity often have lower rates of crime, better educational outcomes, and stronger local economies. At a base level these benefits make sense: When there are fewer people struggling to make ends meet, the entire community thrives.

Limitations of SNAP, WIC, and HIP

Government food assistance programs are not without flaws. The administrative rules serve as the greatest barrier for people who need help. What’s more, they often don’t even have their desired effect. For instance, recent research shows that work requirements increase the number of people exiting a program but don’t increase employment rates or reduce poverty rates.

Those working to get off of food assistance programs face strict income cut off points, creating a benefits cliff for users of the program. A benefits cliff occurs when an individual abruptly loses some or all of a benefit once they reach a certain income threshold. This happens in many government programs (including Medicaid and child care subsidies), severely impacting the well-being of low-income families and disincentivizing individuals from pursuing career opportunities or transitioning from government assistance to work.

Concluding thoughts

Government food assistance programs are vital lifelines for many Americans. SNAP and WIC ensure that low-income families have better access to essential food, reducing food insecurity and associated health risks. HIP takes it a step further by incentivizing the purchase of fresh foods from local vendors, promoting healthier dietary choices and bolstering the local economy. Together, these programs offer a limited but critical benefit to low-income people in the United States.

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