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Child benefits are in the news, specifically the Child Tax Credit and its future in the Build Back Better plan. Empirical research on welfare benefits can help us understand just what is at stake for the children affected by welfare policies.
A new paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Human Resources, links the availability of SNAP benefits during childhood to future criminal convictions. The result may be unsurprising – more SNAP benefits results in less criminal convictions – but the magnitude of the results and the racial characteristics are extremely interesting.
The authors observed that when SNAP benefits were being rolled out in North Carolina, some places were getting them sooner than others in a staggered, predictable way. This means that some kids, for no reason other than the randomness of the programming, got more benefits than others. This allowed the researchers to observe just how beneficial SNAP is to kids, and whether it affects their future likelihood of criminal convictions.
The magnitude of the results is a bit startling: “Each additional year of FSP availability in early childhood reduces the likelihood of a criminal conviction in young adulthood by 2.5 percent.” One might think that the racial disproportionality of both poverty and incarceration is at play here, and the authors considered this explanation. The percent decrease in criminal convictions is even larger for non-whites. The authors attribute this larger effect to non-white families’ higher participation in the food stamps program.
These results are historical: Food stamps were rolled out in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, but the lessons remain relevant. Children who are well-fed and provided for are less likely to fall into the pipeline to prison. It’s common sense, which these authors have backed up with robust empirical evidence.
Hopefully, as the debates around the Build Back Better bill and child benefits rage on, legislators will consider evidence like this. It may be a way to argue that child benefits are actually the policy of law and order! After all, who doesn’t want healthier kids and less crime?
 Barr, Andrew, and Alexander Smith, Fighting Crime in the Cradle: The Effects of Early Childhood Access to Nutritional Assistance, 2020 (working paper)