The Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) is considered a crucial component of the social safety net in the United States, yet there is limited supporting evidence on the effects of WIC on the nutritional well-being and food security of infants and young children. Two key identification problems have been especially difficult to address. First, the decision to take up WIC is endogenous as households are not randomly assigned to the program; recipients are likely to differ from nonrecipients in unobserved ways (e.g., prior health) that are related to associated outcomes. Second, survey respondents often fail to report receiving public assistance, and the existing literature has uncovered substantial degrees of systematic misclassification of WIC participation. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), we apply recently developed partial identification methodologies to jointly account for these two identification problems in a single framework. Under relatively weak assumptions, we find that WIC reduces the prevalence of child food insecurity by at least 5.5 percentage points and very low food security by at least 1.5 percentage points.
Food insecurity among children is a serious policy issue in the United States, with 17 percent of children (12.5 million kids) residing in food insecure households in 2017. Research shows that even after controlling for other factors correlated with poverty, food insecure children are more likely to face a host of health problems, including, but not limited to, a higher risk of some birth defects, anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive problems, higher levels of aggression and anxiety, poorer general health, poorer oral health, and a higher chance of being hospitalized, having asthma, or experiencing behavioral problems.
With the support of the Food and Nutrition Service in USDA, in 2011 UKCPR launched its Research Program on Childhood Hunger. UKCPR competitvely awarded 34 grants totaling $5.25 million to conduct innovative, rigorous, policy-relevant research on the underlying causes and consequences of food insecurity among children in the United States. To date, this initiative has resulted in over 40 peer-reviewed publications across a host of disciplines, showing that while poverty status is an important contributor to childhood food insecurity, it by no means is the only contributor. The funded research shows that other leading factors include poor parental physical and mental health, immigrant status, complex family structures, lack of access to quality child care and child support, and exposure to lack of regular feeding during summer school breaks, among others. This research is summarized in a research report by James Ziliak and Craig Gundersen published at the The Future of Children, and below are the discussion papers underlying this research initiative.
Family structure, work patterns, and time allocations: Potential mechanisms of food insecurity among children
Children at the most risk of very low food security are more often being raised in immigrant families. While under a quarter of all children have immigrant parents, a disproportionate amount (40%) comprise the population of children living under the most severe conditions of food insecurity. Family structure is a key predictive factor among low-income families. Cildren living with a single parent or living in a more complex family are at an increased risk of low or very low food security, compared with children living in either a 100% biological family or a stepfamily. Notably, mother’s work patterns among low-income families are much stronger predictors of children’s food insecurity among stepfamilies than in 100% biological families. Other results suggest that disability among adults living with children greatly increases the likelihood of the more extreme form of child food insecurity. Children living with a disabled adult are almost three times more likely to live under conditions of very low food security, compared to children living in a household without a disabled adult.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program and food insecurity
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides cash reimbursement to family day care, child care centers, homeless shelters, and after-school programs for meals and snacks served to children. While adults and school-aged children are eligible, the large majority of funding through this program is directed towards younger children. In 2009, 3.2 million children participated (versus 112,000 adults). In this research, we estimate the direct effect of provider participation in CACFP on household and child food insecurity of all income levels. We also explore the role of state institutional arrangements of CACFP on food security. We find that attending a child care setting that participates in CACFP has no effect on the risk of being food insecure. However, we do find that children in family care settings have a higher risk of experiencing childhood food insecurity if the provider participates in CACFP relative to similar children whose family care provider does not participate in CACFP. Given the growing body of evidence on the detrimental effects of nutritional deficiencies in early childhood, our study suggests that family day-care providers and child care centers that participate in CACFP may provide efficient intervention points for nutrition focused interventions.
Low income preschoolers' non-parental care experiences and household food insecurity
Rates of food insecurity in households with children have significantly increased over the past decade. The majority of children, including those at risk for food insecurity, participate in some form of non-parental child care during the preschool years. To evaluate the relationship between the two phenomenon, this study investigates the effects of child care arrangements on food insecurity in households with children. To address the selection bias problem that arises from the fact that enrollment in different types of child care is not a random process, this study uses propensity scores techniques. The authors compare outcomes across five child care arrangement patterns: no non-parental care (i.e., exclusive parent care), relative care, non-relative care, center care, and Head Start. Our results demonstrate that for low income preschoolers, compared to no non-parental care, attending a child care center reduces the probability of both food insecurity and very low food security, relative care reduces the probability of food insecurity, and non-relative care increases the probability of very low food security.
Child food security and the food stamp program: What a difference a month makes
In 2007, about 3.3 million households in the U.S. (8.3 percent of households with children) had fchildren who lacked consistent access to an adequate food supply, implying less than complete coverage of children by the food-assistance safety net. We use the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID) to estimate the effect of food stamp participation on child food security. Our results indicate that food stamps play an important role in protecting the well-being of needy children by improving food security among children in low-income households who are faced with economic shocks.
Transitions into and out of the WIC program: A cause for concern?
Despite the health benefits of participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), many eligible households do not participate in WIC during pregnancy and others exit WIC after a child turns one year old. This research uses the first two waves of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) to advance our understanding of these transitions into and out of WIC. Findings suggest that those who exhibit better economic health across a variety of dimensions are more likely to delay entry into the program or exit after a child turns one year of age.
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