Last week, researchers released a new study that confirms what every student, teacher, parent, and human being with a stomach already knew: It’s harder to think when you’re hungry.
The study’s authors matched up the timing of math tests in South Carolina to the dates when low-income students’ families received monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). They found that kids’ test scores dropped at times of the month when nutrition benefits had run out. Put another way, access to SNAP substantially improves students’ academic performance—but only when there are actually enough benefits for families to be able to eat.
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Running out of SNAP benefits isn’t an anomaly—nearly half of participating families run out before the end of the month. That means many students who receive SNAP see their academic performance dip every single month, and then rebound once their families receive more benefits. That’s not surprising, since SNAP benefits average just $1.40 per person per meal; it’s such a gross underestimation of food cost that nearly 80 percent of benefits are spent in the first two weeks. School meals provide a little bit of a buffer—in fact, kids get as many as half their calories from the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs—but these programs aren’t designed to provide all the food a child needs to survive. Plus, they can’t reach kids on weekends or during the summer months.
This new research adds to a wealth of evidence that hunger hampers kids’ ability to learn, holds back their development of social skills, and leads to behavioral problems. And it complements many careful studies that find that access to SNAP and other programs that provide basic living standards have large, positive effects on kids’ long-term outcomes.
What’s new and different about this paper, though, is that it demonstrates the immediate difference SNAP makes to kids, rather than the long-term effects. And it joins a small but growing body of research that examines how the economic insecurity many families experience on a month-to month—or even week-to-week—basis negatively impacts their lives.
This study also reveals a massive missed opportunity: For the modest cost of boosting SNAP benefits so that they’re enough to last all month—about $15 billion per year—the US could dramatically reduce hunger and significantly boost academic achievement and educational attainment for low-income students. That’s a fraction of what Trump has proposed in tax cuts: It adds up to $1 of food benefits for every $29 he wants to give to wealthy corporations and business owners.
Instead, President Trump wants to slash SNAP by a whopping 29 percent over the next decade. That could mean an average of 3.6 million families—including roughly 1.9 million families with children—would lose access to food assistance each year. Not to be outdone, House Republicans propose cutting SNAP by 42 percent between 2023 and 2027, which could leave 7 million families hungry in 2023.
The Roosevelt Institute’s Marshall Steinbaum calls out the irony here: Many elites insist—sometimes condescendingly—that education is the ticket out of poverty. If you’re poor, they imply, it’s because you should have gone to school longer to secure a higher-paying job. But while education does tend to provide some protection from poverty, this misses a key insight. Sometimes, the barrier to education is poverty itself.
It goes without saying that protecting children from hunger is far and away the most important goal of SNAP—and the only necessary one. But studies like this show that when Trump and House Republicans propose gutting programs that ensure basic living standards, they’re not just leaving kids hungry. They’re ripping away low-income kids’ chances to escape economic insecurity and experience upward economic mobility.
How can we expect our nation’s next generation to focus on a dream—especially one as ambitious as the American Dream—when they’re hungry?