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Existing scholarly evidence suggests that early-life environments play a critical role in shaping an individual’s long-term socioeconomic outcomes. The impact of safety net programs on early-life environments and outcomes is largely unknown.

This study uses novel data to estimate the impact of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and home visitation (HV) programmes on cognitive and language outcomes in children up to 24 months. Repeated measurements on participation in public programmes and early-life outcomes for a large sample of children and mothers in Memphis, Shelby county, TN were collected. Within this dataset the exposure-outcome relationship is directly observable over time. The specific structure of the data enables us to address endogeneity concerns via the use of first-difference estimators combined with a rich set of time-varying covariates.

We provide empirical evidence to conclude that WIC participation is associated with a positive and statistically significant impact of 0.32 and 0.16 standard deviations in receptive communication and expressive communication scores, respectively. Overall, participation in these safety net programmes is shown to have meaningfully contributed to improving developmental outcomes among children up to two years of age. Presented empirical evidence might be critical at a time when funding for WIC, SNAP or other safety-net programmes is in peril.