Hilary Hoynes is a University of California at Berkeley economist who wrote a particularly notable paper last year. Instead of increasing dependency, as conservative critics have repeatedly claimed, Hoyen's paper showed that, for women at least, food stamp use during pregnancy and early childhood has exactly the opposite impact of what conservatives allege: It actually increases economic self-sufficiency when children grow up, in the next generation.
That was just one of two main results reported in “Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net,” which Hoynes co-authored with Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond. As stated in the paper's abstract, access to food stamps for women leads to "increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, and income, and decreases in welfare participation).” Hoynes and her colleagues took advantage of the fact that food stamp programs were established county-by-county over a period of years, creating a sort of “natural experiment” beginning half a century in the past.
“Hoynes’ work has been timely, innovative and revealing,” said Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has highlighted Hoynes' work this year as food stamps and the SNAP program have become a major subject of controversy. “Hoynes and her collaborators have really broadened our understanding of how programs like food stamps not only relieve hardship in the moment but can trigger long-lasting gains in participating children’s later health and education. The implications of the research are considerable. In this long view, such assistance is not only helping struggling families to scrape by, it’s a good investment in the next generation of citizens and workers.”
Hoynes herself said, “This work indicates that there are important benefits of the safety net that to date have been ignored. They predict that a more generous safety net can reduce health disparities. More generally, the emerging evidence points to an important role for investments in early life -- and those investments generate important returns in terms of better health and economic outcomes in adulthood.”
It's a startling result in light of the onslaught of conservative claims to the contrary, but it's somewhat less startling — though still quite illuminating — in light of what's actually known about the impacts of hunger on childhood development back in the “reality based community,” where population-based studies of hunger impacts date back to the 1970s, when researchers first began reporting on the long-term, adult impacts on children born during and shortly after the so-called Dutch “Hunger Winter,” a period from November 1944 through May 1945, when a large part of the Netherlands was subjected to drastically reduced rations under Nazi occupation.
But to really appreciate the significance of this research, one must also appreciate two other aspects of Hoynes' recent research, which combine to provide a three-pronged counterattack on the right's “culture of dependency” narrative. First, she has done previous research establishing short-term benefits — not just for food stamps, but also the for the earned income tax credit — specifically, a reduction in low-birthweight babies, a significant indicator of well-being. This research alone is sufficient to show that safety net programs are achieving the goals of bettering people's lives, adding more weight to the already well-established statistics on poverty reduction. Second, she has done research into safety net program utilization over the course of economic recession and recovery, research that shows that the current levels of food stamp and other program use are in line with past history, and not a sign of any alleged “explosion” in a “culture of dependency” under Obama, as the right-wing noise machine would have it.
Thus, Hoynes' work provides powerful evidence for a three-pronged counterattack against this conservative narrative, which has come to play a dominant role in Republican politics in the post-Bush/Obama/Tea Party era: 1) The safety net works in the short term, producing measurable improvements in newborn health; 2) it works in the long term, improving health for both men and women, and reducing dependency among women in the next generation; and 3) it works currently in much the same manner as it has worked in the past. The long-term effects findings are clearly the most remarkable, which is why they're worth looking into more closely. But it's the overall combination of evidence — along with the work of others working on other aspects of the safety net — that provides a robust picture of what the real-world safety net actually does to build better lives, pushing back against the onslaught of right-wing lies.
In July, for example, when House Republicans were first threatening massive food stamp cuts, the CBPP released a report, “SNAP Enrollment Remains High Because the Job Market Remains Weak.” It's common sense, of course. As the report stated in its very first sentence, “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) historically has been the most responsive federal program after unemployment insurance in assisting families and communities during economic downturns,” so it stands to reason that our notoriously bad job market would keep tens of millions of people on food stamps. CBPP began its analysis by citing Congressional Budget Office projections that “as the labor market recovers, SNAP costs will decline markedly. CBO projects that by 2019, SNAP costs will fall all of the way back to their mid-1990s level, measured as a share of gross domestic product (GDP).”
But as CBPP continued, they supplemented CBO data with the more detailed research that Hoynes took part in: “In a new piece of research, economists Hilary Hoynes and Marianne Bitler examine the relationship between poverty and fluctuations in economic activity since 1980 and the historical responsiveness of SNAP, UI [unemployment insurance], and other safety net programs over the business cycle. If SNAP had increased more in proportion to the unemployment rate over the past few years than it has historically, that would provide support to critics who claim that SNAP should have come down as the unemployment rate has declined. But that is not what the research shows. Hoynes and Bitler found that '[T]he safety net programs receiving the most attention through the Great Recession (Food Stamps and UI) exhibit adjustments very consistent with their behavior during previous historical cycles.'”
That research is vital for deflating claims of an expanding culture of dependency — and thus for holding the line against deeper cuts to SNAP. But it's the long-term impacts research that holds the promise of informing a proactive, pro-safety net economic populism that can do more than just respond reactively to the Tea Party. And, indeed, CBPP's president, Robert Greenstein, cited that research in his testimony to the Senate Budget Committee in February this year. Her research has gotten more attention in the last six months or so than it ever has before, Hoynes said — but if it's to have the kind of impact that it deserves, this should only be the beginning.
What Hoynes and progressives interested in building on her work are up against is almost 20 years in which empirical data has been relentlessly marginalized. In 1995, in his first year as speaker, Newt Gingrich dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment (which had repeatedly dissed Reagan's “Star Wars” missile defense), and imposed other internal changes — such as defunding House committee staff — which radically undermined the role of sound information in shaping the nation's laws. As conservative iconoclast Bruce Bartlett put it, “Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it.” Although Gingrich quickly burned out as speaker, the fact-free culture he promoted has only grown more virulent since then.
While all this was going on in Washington, Hoynes was producing a body of work about the safety net that no longer seemed to matter to those calling the shots in Congress. “My work, coming from the background and typical approaches of economics, had mostly focused on how ... different kinds of programs [welfare versus the earned income tax credit, food stamps vs. cash welfare] lead to differences in employment decisions, poverty outcomes, family structure decisions, how it influences the propensity for kids to be living with 2-parent vs. 1-parent families, you know, these kinds of questions.” In short, Hoynes was empirically studying the very sorts of outcomes that self-absorbed politicians were busily pontificating about.
About five years ago, Hoynes said, her interests began to shift toward “calculating the benefits of programs, rather than spending a lot of time talking about the costs of programs.”
“I got interested in thinking about how we could measure how these programs affect well-being of children in the households, or the households more broadly,” Hoynes said. “It came from a broader interest in evaluating potential benefits of the safety net, which … had sort of never been thought about before — the sort of cream on the top, if you will.” It wasn't just a new direction for her, she noted, “There really wasn't a whole lot of work on this.”
There was one exception, however: the child health impacts of Medicaid expansion, covering families higher up the income distribution. Of course it makes sense that expanding health insurance would impact children's health; that's the whole point. But Hoynes took things beyond the obvious. “I sort of thought, 'Well, here are these measures of health and well-being, can we demonstrate that a more cash-based safety net, general redistribution [program] can be quantified in terms of effects on health outcomes?' So that's sort of where I was coming from.”
Her research agenda has focused on “the two programs that are the most important programs for low-income families and that is food stamps/SNAP and the earned income tax credit,” she explained. Her first projects looked at impacts on “a very common robust important measure of child health, which is their weight at birth.”
This is where she first used the county-by-county rollout approach. “When food stamps come into your county, we can use the full census of births in America,” she said, “comparing women across counties from one year to the next, using the full census of births from the birth certificate data; we can then look at the weigh of children at birth, their propensity to be a low-birth weight birth and how this varies when food stamps is available versus not.” This is the short-term food stamp research referred to above. She and her co-authors found a statistically significant reduction in the risk of low birth weight, which tended to concentrate in high poverty counties.
Her paper on the earned income tax credit used a conceptually similar approach, but instead of using a county-by-county rollout structure for the “natural experiment” design, she used changes in the tax law, which changed the incentives involved during the 1990s “as we reformed welfare and moved away from AFDC/TANF and toward the EITC, as a main way to provide cash assistance to low-income families.”
This is not how Washington understands welfare reform, of course. The decline of AFDC/TANF funding and the expansion of the EITC somehow live in completely separate boxes, and the “success” of welfare reform — primarily defined as the reduced number of recipients — has nothing to do with expansion of the EITC, which has helped keep so many millions afloat. But what about the real world? How did expanding EITC compare to the rollout of food stamps more than a generation earlier? “Amazingly, we found very similar results,” Hoynes said. “If you provide more assistance through the tax system, using this good variation across a different kind of natural experiment, as it were, we found reductions in low birth rates, more so for families that you would expect to be affected by the EITC, you know, lower education levels, single woman versus married.
“I would say it's a very fertile area right now, that people are interested in trying to quantify these longer-term effects. And now, decades have passed, since that time period and the populations that are affected by them are sufficiently mature that we can really dive in and ask some questions that we hadn't be able to do before.”
With all that data out there, and researchers like Hoynes starting to make sense of it, one has to ask if it isn't time for a reality-based political movement to start using what they're learned to shape a better future.
It might seem like a pipe dream now. But it was actually more or less like that before Gingrich “reformed” the House. As late as 1992, authors Fay Lomax Cook and Edith J. Barrett found strong support for the welfare state and its programs, despite negative views of welfare in their highly detailed survey, Support for the American Welfare State: The Views of Congress and the Public. One key factor in Congress was that Republicans in committee leadership positions, who were much more familiar with how programs worked, showed significantly more support than Republicans as a whole. That was how things were before Gingrich went to work. It's a good indication of what Speaker Pelosi should have undone when she held power from 2007 to 2011. The next time Democrats do gain control of the House, they will need to prioritize making it friendly to the likes of Hilary Hoynes and her reality-based colleagues. It's the only way, ultimately, to make it friendly to all the rest of us as well.