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Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net

American Economic Review, 106(4):903-934. April 2016.


A growing economics literature establishes a causal link between in utero shocks and health and human capital in adulthood. Most studies rely on extreme negative shocks such as famine and pandemics. We are the first to examine the impact of a positive and policy-driven change in economic resources available in utero and during childhood. In particular, we focus on the introduction of a key element of the U.S. safety net, the Food Stamp Program, which was rolled out across counties in the U.S. between 1961 and 1975. We use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to assemble unique data linking family background and county of residence in early childhood to adult health and economic outcomes. The identification comes from variation across counties and over birth cohorts in availability of the food stamp program. Our findings indicate that the food stamp program has effects decades after initial exposure. Specifically, access to food stamps in childhood leads to a significant reduction in the incidence of “metabolic syndrome” (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and, for women, an increase in economic self-sufficiency. Overall, our results suggest substantial internal and external benefits of the safety net that have not previously been quantified.

Additional Information

Media: Paul KrugmanFreakonomicsThink ProgressSalon.comThe AtlanticJared Bernstein BlogBill Moyers and CompanyWonkblogWhite House Blog, American Economic Association Resarch Highlight, Mapping Ignorance, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Washington Post EverythingNew York Times, Bloomberg Opinion, PBS News Hour

Research Summary: Microeconomic Insights, AEA Web, EconoFact, GSPP Policy Notes 2018

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Published Paper (2MB)

Final paper [accepted AER] (1MB)

Slides (3MB)

Policy Brief (1MB)

Paper summary from UCOP Global Food Initiative's Research to Policy (264KB)

IPR Policy Brief