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Opinion | Social Welfare Can Break the Intergenerational Cycle of Poverty

Another study has found that when the children who grew up in Medicaid-eligible households were in their 20s, they were more likely to have gone to college than those whose families, despite their similar economic circumstances, had the misfortune of living in a state where their families were not eligible for Medicaid. Now they are earning more and paying more taxes.

Here’s another example — A Norwegian study demonstrated the decades-long impact on infants who, during their first year, benefited from their mothers’ having had the opportunity to enroll in free mother and child health care centers. In the succeeding years, these youngsters grew taller and stayed in school longer than those whose mothers did not receive the same support. At age 40, they are in better health.

The earned-income tax credit has also been a boon for children. Add $1000 to a family’s earned-income tax credit when a youth is 13-to-18 years old, Jacob Bastian and Katherine Michelmore have found, and the likelihood increases that they will graduate from high school, complete college, and have a decent-paying job.

Critics have used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a punching bag, the nanny state exemplified, ever since the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964. This critique is flat-out wrong. A 2018 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that SNAP has helped to dramatically reduce child poverty and that twice as many children would live in deep poverty without the program.

Recent research shows that the food stamp program has had a decades-long effect on the health, economic self-sufficiency and the overall well-being of children who came of age in those families. These children are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, earn more and stay out of prison.

Hilary Hoynes, a public policy and economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues calculate that for every dollar that the program costs, the long-run benefits to the child — increased income and longer life expectancy — are a whopping $56. This year benefits for food stamps will rise 27 percent, on average. Not only will those extra dollars keep food on the table for millions of families; their children will get a lifelong boost.

While statistics can be numbing, the bottom line deserves headline attention — in the long term, social safety net programs for families with young children reduce the need for government support over the course of two generations.

These studies have been buried in academic obscurity, but they deserve a wider audience. The research convincingly establishes that every dollar invested in safety net initiatives for children — whether in high-quality early education, Medicaid or food stamps — can change the arc of their lives. That’s the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.

David Kirp is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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