Researching health policy to enhance lives
One way or another, everything is related to health. Christian King made that suggestion recently during an interview about his health policy research, as an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences. King provided an example of federal law that targeted drug felons, but ended up having an impact on the health and food insecurity of families and children.
The 1996 federal welfare reform law included a provision giving states the discretion to apply a ban on public assistance for anyone convicted of a drug felony. An unintended consequence of that legislation saw a reduction of aid to children of drug felons, through programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.
“Sadly,” says King, “about half of the states decided to have the ban. Over the last 20 years, some states decided to repeal the ban, but Nebraska was not one of them. I am interested in understanding where social inequalities and health disparities come from and what we can do to reduce them.”
King suggests, and research supports, that these inequalities and disparities can contribute to a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. The costs to families and society is substantial, and King believes public health policy can address some of these problems.
“I hope my research will at least inform the debate, because framing this issue with empirical data can be very powerful,” said King.
King and research colleagues are revising a proposal to the National Institutes of Health to study the drug felony ban in Nebraska, including the impacts on recidivism and the amount of public assistance received by effected families. There is evidence that this issue can increase the amount of food insecurity for these families.
“When people are released from prison they encounter a lot of barriers to reintegrate into society, and we sometimes create additional barriers that are counterproductive and might perpetuate the cycle of crime and poverty,” King said.
Although Nebraska has historically low unemployment rates—currently tied for fourth lowest nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the state’s rate of food insecurity is higher than the national average. Between 2013-2015, nearly 15 percent of Nebraska households were considered food insecure compared to 13.6 percent nationally. Food insecure households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, at some time during the year, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”
Despite the apparent need, few eligible schools in Nebraska are taking advantage of federal school lunch funding that would provide free school meals for all children, at schools that have at least 40 percent of their students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. This policy decision is another one that potentially impacts the health of low income families and children, and King would like to further study the factors contributing to the issue.
“Sometimes you have a great policy idea, but implementation doesn’t follow,” said King. “Ideally, we want to break the cycle of poverty. Examining health policy more closely can better inform policymakers, which has the potential of improving the well-being of low-income families and reducing the negative consequences to those families and society.”