SNAP Benefits Reduce Future Criminal Convictions, According to New Empirical Research

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[1]. 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.”[2] 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?

[1] Here is a link to the author’s webpage, where this paper and others of interest to Children and the Law Blog readers may be found

[2] Barr, Andrew, and Alexander Smith, Fighting Crime in the Cradle: The Effects of Early Childhood Access to Nutritional Assistance, 2020 (working paper)

Harris County Juvenile Centers 2021 Winter Holiday Surprise

Image of some of the gifts that were donated for the Juvenile Centers in Harris County.

The holidays should be a wonderous time for children. But this year, thousands of children across the United States will spend the holidays behind bars and in residential facilities away from their families and loved ones. With the Covid pandemic continuing to rage on, it has become even more difficult for families to connect with their kids currently housed behind bars.

While we know it’s no replacement for enjoying the holiday season with loved ones outside of the confines of these facility walls, the students at the University of Houston Law Center have continued their tradition of collecting gifts to donate to the kids with the hope of making their holiday season a little brighter. This year, we’re pleased to report that with the help of many generous donations, we were able to meet out fundraising goal. This coming week, we will be delivering donations to the over 200 children housed at the Harris County Detention Center, Leadership Academy, and Youth Village. Notably, we were able to donate stockings that the kids will be able to decorate and which the staff will fill with goodies (this was a big hit last year). Some of the stocking stuffers will include body wash, deodorant, playing cards, candy, granola bars and other snacks, combs, hand sanitizers, lip balm, and holiday socks. Additionally, we’ve assembled toiletry kits for some of the kids that will be released and sent home as well as board games that can be played to help pass the time.

We couldn’t have done this without the help of our extended community of generous donors. Happy Holidays to all!

3 Stories You May Have Missed During #YJAM

1) Earlier this month, WPLN in partnership with ProPublica published an investigation into wrongdoing in the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The story centers around the 2016 arrest of ten black elementary school students who had been caught on video witnessing a fight; the children were charged with “criminal responsibility for the conduct of another,” which is not in fact a punishable offense under the state’s criminal code. Investigators uncovered grossly problematic judicial oversight and widespread departmental misconduct—including the use of an illegal “filter system” for processing juveniles into detention—in a county that jails children at a rate nearly 10 times the national average.

As a result of this reporting, eleven members of Congress have petitioned the Department of Justice to conduct an official investigation into Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.

2) Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing the abuse faced by children in Texas’ juvenile detention centers. According to interviewees, detention facilities are short-staffed—partly due to the pandemic—and without adequate supervision, kids confined to their rooms grow restless and are more likely to act out. Staff members have resorted to the use of physical violence to maintain order: unruly detainees have been subjected to beatings, pepper spray, as well as solitary confinement. These problems have persisted in the state’s juvenile justice system for decades despite numerous reform efforts and lawsuits brought by various child advocacy organizations.

3) Just this week, over 200 people imprisoned for crimes committed as juveniles in Oregon may become eligible for parole hearings or conditional releases under Governor Kate Brown’ s new commutation plan. The plan operates as a sort of constitutional salve for inmates serving time under the state’s mandatory sentencing measures regarding serious offenses. The governor’s order—which some experts have called “unprecedented”— emphasizes the importance of adolescent development considerations and the potential for rehabilitation for individuals incarcerated at a young age.