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Food Stamps, HIV, and the Ryan Budget

Brenden Timpe

A small study out of Yale School of Medicine caught the eye of some observers this week by raising an intriguing question: Do food stamp cuts lead to greater rates of HIV?

The study, which will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal AIDS Education and Prevention, takes advantage of a quirk in the food stamp program, which is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. As part of the welfare reform law passed in 1996, people convicted on felony drug charges are permanently banned from receiving SNAP benefits. However, Congress left a loophole – big-hearted states can decide to ignore the ban and let people start fresh once they get out of prison.

The result: In some lenient states, like Connecticut, convicted felons can claim benefits once they’ve paid their debt to society. In others, like California, only drug traffickers and other serious offenders get the ban. But if you live in a law-and-order-minded state, like Texas, a one-time offense means you’re out of luck for a lifetime.

So the Yale researchers came up with a theory. If you’ve been convicted on drug charges and spent time in a federal prison, chances are you’re down and out. You’ll have trouble putting food on the table, and the lack of support from the social safety net will only make things worse. As a result, you’ll be more likely to take risks – such as behavior that exposes you to HIV infection.

Just as the Yale researchers expected, surveys of recently released prisoners found a lot of unemployed, hungry people. Thirty-seven percent were “severely food insecure” – meaning that in the past month, they’d gone an entire day without food. 

The results also aligned with the more explosive elements of their theory: The hungriest individuals were more likely to live in a state where they were ineligible for food stamps. And they were indeed more likely to take risks – such as using drugs before sex or engaging in prostitution to earn some cash.

The Yale study was small, and researchers say there is more work to do to untangle the relationships between food stamps, hunger, and risky behavior. Even so, it should give some pause to Rep. Paul Ryan and other advocates of cutting back on the social safety net or turning SNAP into a block grant program.

Experience has shown that we’re fooling ourselves if we think that cutting welfare programs to the bone will force America’s least fortunate to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Gutting SNAP would not just be uncompassionate; it would also be foolish. The program is remarkably successful at reducing poverty, rooting out waste and fraud, and even providing stimulus during economic downturns.

In fact, when the National Academy of Sciences published a report critical of SNAP earlier this year, its beef was that benefits were not generous enough. That’s hardly a case for defunding and dismantling.