Curbing Childhood Obesity: The EITC’s Role in Helping Families Manage Food & Financial Insecurity

Lauren Bush

September marks National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, a pivotal time to spotlight the health hazards linked to childhood obesity and to advocate for the health of America’s youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity remains a significant concern in the United States.

In 2017-2020, the prevalence of childhood obesity was 19.7%, impacting approximately 14.7 million children and adolescents. The high rate of obesity-related conditions that can have long-term effects such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes, underscores the importance of the nation’s collective efforts to promote healthier futures for our children.

Unfortunately, what’s often left out of the conversation is the often-overlooked financial strain families face in supporting their children’s physical and mental well-being—including when it comes to affording nutritious food, creating opportunities for physical activity, and more.

This is where programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) emerge as a critical tool to help families support the health of their children. By raising awareness about the existence of and qualifications for the EITC, families can potentially tap into a pool of resources to support healthier lifestyles for their children by affording them increased access to everything from nutritious foods to healthcare to extracurriculars that encourage physical activity.

The EITC’s Vital Role in the Fight Against Childhood Obesity

In curbing childhood obesity, financial insecurity is a formidable opponent. Research shows that when incomes drop, families tend to choose cheaper, calorie-dense foods. The harsh reality of “food deserts,” disproportionately affecting low-income neighborhoods, makes the situation even graver as they tend to have higher rates of childhood obesity.

This dietary divide is more pronounced with families that primarily rely on staples like cereals, pasta, and fatty meats, instead of healthier proteins, whole grains, and fresh produce. Additionally, low-income families often have demanding work schedules, making it challenging to prepare meals from scratch.

The high number of families with children eligible for the EITC makes it a cornerstone in the fight against childhood obesity. As noted by the IRS, by the end of December 2022, about 31 million workers and families received approximately $64 billion in EITC for the tax year 2020. On average, recipients across the nation received about $2,043 in EITC during that tax year, which as stated by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), is often used to pay for necessities like nutritious foods. The EITC empowers families with the ability to introduce their children to a healthier lifestyle, which is imperative in helping to curb potential health issues later in life.

The EITC’s Role in Poverty Reduction and Health Improvement

A recent study published in the Journal of Public Economics explored the relationship between childhood exposure to the EITC and improvements in self-reported health during early adulthood. In this context, ‘exposure’ refers to the act of claiming the EITC and is linked to a reduced likelihood of obesity in early adulthood.

The study reveals that even a modest increase in the average annual EITC exposure during childhood, whether by $100 or 3%, can lead to substantial health benefits. Specifically, this increase results in a noteworthy 1.7 percentage point boost, equivalent to a 2.6% increase, in the likelihood of individuals reporting excellent or very good health. Additionally, it effectively reduces the odds of obesity by 0.8 percentage points, representing a significant 4.1% decrease.

The EITC is also associated with positive health outcomes for infants and mothers. CDC research indicates that significant health improvements are observed when substantial EITC benefits are accessible. Health institutions and public health collaborators could even play a role in engaging eligible individuals and encouraging them to explore the tax credit.

At present, a wide range of organizations and initiatives are leveraging the potential of the EITC to combat childhood obesity. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Education, for instance, works in conjunction with the EITC to provide comprehensive nutrition education to low-income families in order to promote healthier choices and futures for young people.

Leveraging the EITC for Healthier Futures

Beyond the numbers, every child and family aspire to a healthier future, and by raising greater awareness of the benefits and impact of the EITC, families have the income, opportunity, and support to make choices that nurture their children’s well-being now and long into the future.