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It's not just for adults: How the fiscal cliff could affect children in needy families

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 4:10 p.m. MST

Many experts worry about the effect that these types of cuts will have on children born into families that rely on the social safety net will be devastating for years to come.

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As the discussions about the fiscal cliff drag on, one thing is certain: The social saftey net will look very different in the years to come. Although specifics on where cuts will be made are still unknown, Washington insiders say that everything from Medicaid to food stamps to education spending are vulnerable.

But many experts worry about the effect that these types of cuts will have on children born into families that rely on the social safety net will be devastating for years to come.

For example, a 2012 study analyzed the long-term effects of the introduction of the U.S. Food Stamp program in the 1960's and early 1970's. Researchers found that women who had access to food stamps in early childhood scored better on measures of economic self-sufficiency decades later. Their children, meanwhile, were less likely to battle health issues that increase the chances of getting heart disease and diabetes later in life.

Explaining these findings to The Atlantic, researcher Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach said, "It speaks to the inter-generational transfer of welfare idea — sometimes people claim that one of the downsides of welfare is when you see your parents on it, then you're more likely to go on it. ... We find the opposite — I think it's the best evidence I've seen on it. There's more resources for you and your kid — you're better able to invest in health and nutrition."

Other studies on the impact of the social safety net on children's outcomes show similar benefits. For example, a 2008 study of early childhood programs implemented in the 1960's and 1970's found short- and long-term benefits, particularly for girls. Researchers noted large effects on educational attainment, employment and welfare participation based on participation in the program.

"So what will happen to all the babies, toddlers, and preschoolers — of both genders — relying on the social safety net today?" asked Dwyer Gunn in an essay for The Atlantic. "On this, all the economists I spoke to agree. Early childhood interventions have significant long-term effects on education, health and economic outcomes. Cutting programs that focus on early childhood will affect children for years to come."

Concluding his article, Gunn quotes Schanzenbach, who said, "People are asking: Do we reduce spending on education or do we reduce spending on pensions? And everyone says, 'Oh, we can't cut pensions' — and that might be the choice we want to make — but you gotta note that not only are we going to harm kids today, but it's going to harm our economic productivity in 20 years or 40 years."

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