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ECU Economist to Examine Food Stamps, Obesity Link

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

An East Carolina University economist is studying the relationship between food stamps and their effect on childhood health and obesity.

A $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has enabled Haiyong Liu, a professor of economics, to continue to examine obesity trends among children and the role a mother’s labor and public assistance plays.

“I would expect that effects of food stamps on children’s outcomes vary by factors such as parent’s education, age and family composition,” Liu said.

Drawing from data from the federal Food Stamp Program and the socioeconomic findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Liu is examining food assistance policies and how work affects a mother’s ability to provide food for her children. He is also looking at how these policies affect the health and obesity of children.

“With the recent welfare reform, the Food Stamp Program and other food assistance programs have become the major components of the social safety net for low-income households,” he said.

The Food Stamps Program serves more than 17 million people, most of whom live below the national poverty line. The program provides approximately $75 per person in food aid each month. Liu said the goal of the food assistance programs is to keep food insecurity and associated health problems at a minimum for impoverished families.

“As preliminary results have indicated, I hope that the findings will show that food stamps mitigate the risks of food insecurity among impoverished families and in turn reduce the risks of obesity,” he said. “However, this effect is likely to be very small in average given the behaviors of households that might offset the program’s effect.”

Liu said previous studies that examine the relationship between obesity and food assistance have provided mixed results, with some showing an increase in obesity risk. Other studies suggest public assistance has no impact or even reduces obesity.

Because the information provided by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth offers socioeconomic data as varied as height, weight and income level, Liu hopes to determine what other factors could play a role in obesity and low income families.

“This project hopefully is able to provide some new insights to this research topic by using comprehensive nationally representative data sets and innovative analytical methods,” he said.

Last summer, Liu received a $14,483 seed grant from ECU’s Research and Graduate Studies Division. The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is administering the continuation of his findings.

This page originally appeared in the July 28, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at