These briefs are short and informative analyses of our research
relating to poverty policies. Policy Briefs deliver our
cutting-edge research directly to policy makers, researchers, and
stakeholders in an accessible format.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) serves more than one-quarter of pregnant and postpartum women in the United States. In October 2009, the WIC food package underwent revisions to improve nutritional content. In a recent quasi-experimental study of more than two million California infants, we investigated the extent to which those revisions—which increased access to whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk—resulted in improvements in maternal and infant health.
Economic hardship during childhood contributes to worse mental and physical health across the lifespan. Over the past decade, researchers have begun to highlight the behavioral and biological pathways that underlie these disparities, and to identify protective factors—supportive relationships, for example—that mitigate against their occurrence. In this brief, we summarize some of this recent research and the new challenges it presents. We also make suggestions to inform both policy and practice for youth experiencing economic hardship.
The Food Stamp Program (FSP, known since 2008 as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) is one of the largest safety-net programs in the United States. It is especially important for families with children. However, the FSP eligibility of documented immigrants has shifted on multiple occasions in recent decades. When I studied the health outcomes of children in documented immigrant families affected by such shifts between 1996 and 2003, I found that just one extra year of parental eligibility before age 5 improves health outcomes at ages 6-16.
In the United States, poverty, incarceration, and race are linked in complex ways, with much evidence that poverty may be both a cause and a consequence of incarceration. Black men are disproportionately more likely than white men to be arrested and incarcerated, a racial gap that first emerged in the early 20th century. In a new study, I explore the historical role played in that gap by education. I find that black men fully exposed to an expansion of rural primary schools between 1913 and 1932 were 1.9 percentage points less likely to be incarcerated later.
A quarter of the world’s population suffer from metabolic syndrome (MetS), a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. MetS is particularly common among people of low socioeconomic status (SES). When we examined the relative roles of early-life SES and current SES in explaining MetS risk, we found that low early-life SES contributed to an 83% greater risk of MetS later on.
Poor children in the United States are less healthy than other
children, which may be a central factor in why poverty persists
across generations. Research approaches that use variation in
public programs let researchers disentangle the effects of a
program itself from other factors. These approaches confirm the
broad benefits of safety net programs that target children’s
health and nutrition. They also suggest that access to these
programs in early life improves children’s economic well-being as
adults, which likely transmits to the next generation.
California’s Continuum of Care Reform Act (CCR) shifts
foster care in the state toward placing children with families
and more support for foster parents. We conducted a survey-based
study to learn about who is most likely to be willing to serve as
a resource family, the level of knowledge about foster care and
potential motivations for fostering. We found that the strongest
motivations among potential parents are to support foster youth
and their biological parents rather than any emotional or
financial benefits for themselves. Strong deterrents were
financial strain and worries about being able to adequately care
In the U.S., low-income immigrants are disproportionately
excluded from social services. Even those who have gained formal
access must often overcome informal institutional barriers. In a
new study, I interviewed low-income Mexican immigrant mothers
with limited English skills to understand these informal barriers
in education and healthcare settings as they advocated on behalf
of their children. The study suggests that mothers are most
effective in a less bureaucratized setting and when staff
recognize how deeply they care for and understand their children.
At the core of debates about Head Start is evidence of its
effectiveness, which has been questioned due to the reduction in
test score gains, known as test score “fade-out”, in the years
following participation. However, short-term test score gains may
not accurately reflect the impacts of the program. A number of
studies suggest that the program yields long-term improvements
that include social, cognitive and physical well-being. These
findings show that, overall, Head Start produces a positive
return on investment.
Household economic security contributes to child and family
wellbeing, and is especially important during the rapid
developmental periods of infancy and early childhood. My new
study shows that, on average, the economic wellbeing of U.S.
households falls in the months before and after a birth,
especially among parents with low levels of education and single
mothers who live without other adults. Timely and more generous
income supports and policies facilitating mothers’ employment
could boost economic wellbeing during this critical period.
Despite a near-continuous decline over the past 20 years, the
teen birth rate in the United States continues to be higher than
in other developed countries. Many have advocated for long-acting
reversible contraceptives (LARCs), which are more effective at
preventing pregnancy than more commonly used contraceptives. In a
new study, we
analyze Colorado’s Family Planning Initiative, the first
large-scale policy intervention to improve access to LARCs in the
U.S. We find that the program reduced the teen birth rate by
about five percent, and these effects were concentrated among
Colorado counties with higher rates of poverty.
Children are removed from their families for different reasons,
but poverty and disconnection from financial support such as
employment or public benefits are associated with referrals to
child welfare and children being placed outside the home. Our new
research suggests that efforts to minimize the negative
financial impact of child placement for parents have the
potential to improve both the financial lives of vulnerable
families and their chances for reunification.
In the United States, food assistance programs have been
established to improve the well-being of poor and low-income
children. The School Breakfast Program is a federal program that
offers breakfast to any student who attends a participating
school. In a new study, I evaluate the impact this program has on
student achievement in elementary schools nationally using
variation across states that require schools to participate in
the program. The results suggest that state mandates for the
School Breakfast Program are effective at increasing academic
achievement among low-income students by improving nutrition.
The goal of federal food and nutrition programs in the United
States is to improve the nutritional well-being and health of low
income families. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for
Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to
states to support nutrition for pregnant and post-partum mothers
and children up to age five. Our study, one of the first to
convincingly describe the program’s causal effect, found that
WIC’s implementation led to an increase in average birthweight,
especially among mothers with low levels of education. This
suggests that the value of WIC benefits for needy participants is
substantial compared to the program’s relatively low costs.
Where children grow up has a striking effect on where they live
as young adults. Our new study examined an experimental federal
housing voucher program from the 1990s to learn what factors may
contribute to children living in higher-income neighborhoods as
young adults. We find that housing assistance helps the next
generation to exit concentrated poverty. We also found that a
family’s finances, ties to neighborhoods and the housing market
all play roles, but a family’s desire to live in higher-income,
more integrated neighborhoods is also important.
In 2010, an estimated 2.7 million children and one in nine
African-American children had an incarcerated parent.
Incarceration creates challenges for inmates’ families. Resources
that inmates had contributed are removed, while incarceration
introduces new expenses. Children with incarcerated fathers have
worse educational outcomes and poorer mental health than
otherwise comparable children. Employment assistance and less
restrictive visitation rules may mitigate the economic and
emotional effects incarceration has on families.
During the most recent economic recession in the U.S., many
parents lost their jobs. When a parent loses a job, it can impact
their child’s well-being in complex ways. In a new study, we
sought to understand how a parent losing a job affects their
children’s health. We found that after a job loss, an increase in
public coverage offset much of the decrease in private coverage.
In addition, we found almost no effects on children’s use of
routine health care services and no evidence that job loss
negatively affects children’s physical health in the short run.
However, we do find that parental job loss results in a
deterioration of mental health for some children, which may have
negative implications for child health in the long run.
Truancy in California is a pervasive problem that
disproportionately impacts children in high-poverty schools. Our
study examined how school safety and connectedness relate to
truancy in California’s high-poverty middle and high schools.
We found that children who perceive their schools to be unsafe
and feared being in fights were more likely to skip school.
Students who reported that they were more closely connected to
their schools, particularly students who reported having a
teacher or adult who cared about them, were more likely to
attend. School-wide initiatives enhancing both school safety and
connectedness may lead to improved school attendance at
California’s most disadvantaged schools.
After decades of reductions in official measures of family
violence, annual incidence rates have plateaued over the past ten
years. Poverty and the increased stress it causes can increase
the risk for family violence, which suggests that economic
downturns like the Great Recession may contribute to this
stagnation. Income support in new and existing interventions
may help reduce family violence, especially among high-risk, poor
Domestic violence is a significant problem in the U.S. It leads
to serious medical and emotional costs for victims and their
children, but also has important negative spillovers. Our new
work finds that exposure to a higher proportion of peers
experiencing domestic violence during primary school leads to
lower academic achievement in the long-run, even after moving to
schools with a mixed peer composition.
Growing up in poverty may have long-term impacts beyond the
chance of a better financial future. The stress of early-life
poverty may in fact be associated with serious health problems
well into adulthood.
Ongoing research by Center Graduate Student Fellow Natalie Troxel
and Faculty Affiliate Paul Hastings examines the association
between poverty and compromised adult health, which may have
implications for healthcare costs in the U.S.
From 1900 through the 1960s, millions of black Americans moved
northward during The Great Migration toward economic
opportunity and away from Jim Crow in the South. However,
over the last few decades many of those destination cities
in the north have fared poorly.
Transitions into and out of poverty often happen after major
events such as marriage, divorce, or changes in income. They are
also associated with economic factors, such as unemployment rates