The food stamp program — or SNAP as it's called today — has long been a target of those who believe we're giving the poor too much aid.
The Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker have stiffened requirements to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at the state level and in Washington, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is proposing to include food stamps in his plan to consolidate a number of government programs into an "opportunity grant" that would be doled out to each state to do with as it desires.
What many poverty experts fear is that many states — Wisconsin undoubtedly among them — would shortchange the program that keeps poor folks, especially kids, from going hungry, but is often vilified by politicians who use anecdotes to claim the funds are being misused.
Some new research, however, has pinpointed a far different story — and it's one that in a state like Wisconsin, where our black-white student achievement gap is among the worst in the country, needs to be seriously considered.
Several studies including one, incidentally, led by Madison native Anna Gassman-Pines, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, show a strong correlation between the nutrition young people receive and their test scores in school.
Gassman-Pines' research, for instance, looked at the timing of food stamp benefits and student test scores in North Carolina, where the state distributes benefits across the month instead of all on a single date. Math scores for third- through eighth-graders appear to peak around days 20 to 24 in the food stamp cycle and reading scores improve from days 15 to 19.
The research suggests that children perform best when their families receive their benefits two to three weeks before achievement tests, according to a Washington Post report on the Duke project. As food stamps run out toward the end of the cycle, student achievement drops, too.
Other studies that have been compiled by the White House Council on Economic Advisors show that not only do food stamps alleviate hunger among children, it looks as if they may also influence hospital admissions and even behavior.
In other words, a hungry child can inadvertently contribute to many societal problems.
Many of our politicians blame student achievement gaps and behavioral problems on the schools and teachers, when in reality we inadvertently may be a bigger contributor to those problems through our sometimes-mindless fits of austerity.
Now in the House's driver's seat, Paul Ryan needs to consider those studies before passing legislation that will further erode the nation's SNAP program and add to the growing problem of worse academic outcomes for poor kids.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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