The Food Stamp Program (FSP) administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the cornerstone of the U.S. federal income and food safety net policy. The FSP has subsidized the food budget for millions of American households for over forty years, spending more than $60 billion per year in recent times. Prior research has demonstrated that women who participate in the FSP are more likely to be overweight or obese than eligible non-participants. This finding raises the concern that the additional income provided by FSP benefits induces participants to eat significantly more calories and gain weight, contributing to the U.S. obesity epidemic. Previous studies of the FSP have yielded mixed results. In this study we develop new conceptual and empirical models linking FSP participation, calorie consumption, physical activity, and weight gain, while controlling for genetic variation, weight history, and other physiological characteristics of individuals. The models enable us to test whether participants gained more weight, ate more calories, or engaged less in physical activity; or if previously omitted variables and individual health characteristics explain the higher prevalence of obesity among female FSP participants. We find a positive relationship between FSP participation and weight gain for a small subset of women. We do not find convincing evidence for the hypothesis that FSP participation causes obesity by increasing caloric consumption, decreasing physical activity, or some combination of the two. Our findings suggest that a positive association between FSP and weight exists, but we find no evidence of a direct causal link from one to the other. The association between weight and FSP likely results from confounding factors that make individuals more likely both to gain weight and to participate in the FSP.

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