Below the Tip of the Iceberg: Examining Early Childhood Participation in SNAP and TANF from Birth to Age Six

Colleen Heflin, Michah W. Rothbart, Mattie Mackenzie-Liu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


In the United States, the SNAP and TANF programs provide financial support to low-income households with children. Yet, little is known about the extent of this support over the early childhood period or how program participation varies by race (or ethnicity) and metropolitan county residence. We use administrative data from Virginia to document participation in SNAP and TANF among children born between 2007 and 2010 during their early childhood period, which we define here as birth to age six. We find that participation in SNAP is about four times greater than participation in TANF and that most children begin their connection with the social welfare system in their birth year. Children who participate earlier in life tend to stay connected over a longer portion of the early childhood period, although SNAP participation peaks around ages 3–4 while TANF peaks earlier, around ages 2–3. Most households on SNAP do not receive TANF, but only about 1 in 12 children on TANF do not receive SNAP. Finally, over the early childhood period, on average, just under 1 in 2 children in Virginia participated in SNAP or TANF but demography plays an important role in this process: The level of cumulative receipt is 1 in 4 among White children, 1 in 2 among Hispanic children but rises to 3 in 4 for Black children; cumulative receipt is also higher in nonmetropolitan counties than metropolitan counties. This study documents the reach of the existing social welfare system during the early childhood period, underlining the importance of race and space in twenty-first century America.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)729-755
Number of pages27
JournalPopulation Research and Policy Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • Early childhood
  • SNAP
  • Social welfare
  • TANF

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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