SNAP-ping Out of CPS

States that increased access to food assistance programs reduced child protective services investigations.

person at grocery store checkout with lots of food

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An estimated 37% of children in the United States will experience an intervention with Child Protective Services (CPS) by the age of 18. Household encounters with child and family services often result from situations of low income and food instability. Addressing poverty through public assistance programs could reduce accusations of child neglect, maltreatment, and prevent families from entering the system.

More than three quarters of CPS cases in 2020 were attributed to neglect. If a caregiver is simply not able to afford adequate food, shelter, or resources for a child, the root cause of poverty can be mistaken for neglect. Neglect is often conflated with abuse in CPS reports, and financial assistance for struggling households could be a major solution to preventing a significant amount of CPS investigations.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) gives eligible households supplemental funds for food and is one of the most frequently used public assistance programs. Federal legislation in 2002 removed several eligibility regulations and allowed states to expand programs by adopting more policies.

States could have adopted up to four policy options: Increase the gross income limit for applicants, exclude child support payments from total income, provide transitional SNAP benefits to households leaving state-funded cash assistance programs, and simplify household reporting requirements. All policies expand population access to financial assistance for food.

As more people enrolled in SNAP across the country, the number of CPS investigations and family separations went down.

Michelle Johnson-Motoyama and colleagues looked at the SNAP expansion policies adopted by every U.S. state and Washington, D.C. to see if they reduced CPS and foster care caseloads between 2004 to 2016. As more people enrolled in SNAP across the country, the number of CPS investigations and family separations went down.

States that increased access to SNAP saw reduced rates of CPS and foster care cases resulting from all forms of child maltreatment, specifically for neglect. State policies that simplified reporting and excluded child support from income were associated with significant reductions in child maltreatment and foster care reports. The estimates also indicate a reduction in CPS reports when SNAP is provided to households leaving other cash assistance programs.

The findings suggest that every 5% increase in SNAP enrollees could reduce the number of CPS and foster care cases by 7 to 14%. The authors discuss how the study results advocate for increased SNAP budgets and expanded access to SNAP programs to improve child and family health and welfare across the population.

SNAP programs also require fewer human resources than child welfare services and increased access could potentially put a dent in the severe nationwide shortage of social workers and foster care families. The lack of necessary child service resources has also forced states to place some children in detention centers and hotels. The large amount of CPS and foster care cases also contributes to the negative health effects for both the workers and children in the child welfare system.

Federal spending on child welfare services is low compared to the budget for SNAP. The federal government is responsible for the full cost of SNAP benefits and splits administrative costs with states, while states bear the brunt of the cost for child services.

Many cases of child neglect, maltreatment, and family separation could be prevented if struggling households are given what they need before children are pushed into an ill-equipped and underfunded system.

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