WIC Faces Cuts if Congress Reneges on 25-Year-Long Bipartisan Commitment - Early Learning Nation

WIC Faces Cuts if Congress Reneges on 25-Year-Long Bipartisan Commitment

Chelsea Page knew when she was pregnant with her second child that, once the baby was born, she was going to have to cut her full-time work as a church pastor in Salt Lake City, Utah down to part time. Her toddler has special needs, and between her care and care for the baby, it would be the only way she and her husband could make it work.

Going part time “cut my salary in half, so I needed help being able to afford some of the basics for my family,” she said. Even with her husband’s part-time work, the loss of income would have meant frequenting food pantries, and coping with whatever would be on offer there, if it weren’t for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. More than likely, without WIC she would have had to quit her job, give up her career and uproot her family to move closer to where she could get family support to help with child care. “I don’t think I could have made all the pieces fit in terms of time, support and finances,” she said.

Enrolling in WIC, though, has provided the help that she needed. “It just makes our life have a lot more convenience and dignity being able to shop for what I know my toddler will eat,” she said. “It’s been so great for our family.”

Research has consistently found that WIC participation leads to the birth of healthier babies, better nutrition for babies and kids, less food insecurity, higher immunization rates, and higher scores of mental development for children later on. It also gets big returns; for every dollar it spends on prenatal services, it saves $2.48 in health care costs.

WIC’s supports have gone beyond financial help with buying food; Page said she’s shopping both more affordably and nutritiously for her family, adding more whole grains and protein to their diets. The program offers parenting services as well, and when she came home from the hospital after her baby was born and was having trouble breastfeeding, the program covered a lactation counselor who was able to sort out the issue, allowing Page to keep breastfeeding. She was connected with a curriculum that offers other parents’ experiences and ways to cope with stress and anger, as well as with a fellow mom who has coached her through breastfeeding. She got a starter kit of breastfeeding supplies like a hand pump and milk storage bags. “The support just felt amazing, it felt validating,” she said. With her first child, “I wish that I had this kind of coaching as a new parent, that would have been really helpful.”

“WIC met me in my special circumstance and was accessible for this particular need I had of being able to nourish two very small kids while not being able to work full time,” she said. She noted that she and her husband don’t have family nearby to help and support them; they moved to Utah so she could serve at her particular church. “Receiving food from WIC was the first time I’ve ever felt like, ‘Wow, my society sees what it takes to raise the next generation and actually values and supports this incredible investment that my little family is making into raising some good humans.’”

WIC’s financial, nutritional and moral support is now at risk of being pared back for the first time in a quarter decade. Although WIC is not an entitlement program—meaning that unlike Medicare or Social Security, it does not by definition serve everyone who is eligible—there has been a bipartisan commitment for more than 25 years to fund the program with enough money that it has been able to enroll everyone who applies. “WIC is unique,” noted Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Congress has ensured “enough money so that nobody actually gets turned away for lack of funds.” But, thanks to the combined forces of more people enrolling than had been anticipated and much higher food costs, the program is now facing a possible funding shortfall unless Congress gives it more money.

If Congress doesn’t pass legislation early next year that includes enough funding for WIC by the summer, states will have to start putting people on waiting lists instead of accepting them immediately. Thanks to the program’s priority system, the first people who would be put on those lists would be postpartum people who aren’t breastfeeding and older children, as the program can serve kids up until they reach age five. Unlike other programs that serve people throughout their lives, the benefits of WIC can only be realized in a short window, so someone who languishes on a waiting list is likely to miss out entirely. States will also have to cut off some people when they have to renew their benefits.

These changes will likely ripple out even to people who wouldn’t be put on a waiting list. “Once word gets out that not everyone who’s eligible is able to apply, then people just won’t show up,” Neuberger. Even as states prioritize breastfeeding parents and babies, those people may assume they can’t get on if they hear that there’s a wait. “It’s very hard to contain the effects.” Even if Congress passed enough funding to serve everyone the following year, any rebound in enrollment would likely be slow, she said.

In November, Congress passed and President Biden signed a continuing resolution that kept government funding steady until January 15. It didn’t include the extra money WIC needs, although it did include something important: the ability for the program to keep spending at whatever rate is needed to maintain its current operations and not turn anyone away or take away benefits.

But come January 15, lawmakers will once again debate how much to fund each federal government department and program. At that point it will need to come up with more money to stave off cuts. To keep serving all eligible families who enroll, WIC needs “a substantial increase from last year,” Neuberger said, estimating that it would take about $1 billion more.

And yet neither of the bills currently under consideration by either the House or Senate include nearly enough money to make sure WIC can keep enrolling and serving every eligible person. Instead, Neuberger and Katie Bergh, a senior policy analyst at the CBPP, estimate that under the Senate bill WIC would have to turn away 600,000 new parents and young children and, on top of that, under House Republicans’ steep spending reductions 4.7 million would have their benefits cut.

The need for extra funding is being fueled by two different factors colliding. WIC has never enrolled everyone who qualifies—there is a “very large group of low-income families that are eligible for WIC that have not enrolled in recent years,” Neuberger said, and in fact participation had been declining for a while. That trend has recently reversed, and participation started growing over the second half of last year and all of this year. “That’s a very important, positive turnaround,” Neuberger said. It’s likely being driven by a coordinated effort to get more people to use the program combined with increased need among people who qualify—both thanks to higher food costs and expiring pandemic benefits like the expanded Child Tax Credit, universal free school meals and larger food stamp allotments. But it also means that the program needs more money to keep up in order to not have to turn anyone away.

At the same time, inflation and consistently higher price levels for food mean that each enrollee’s benefits now cost the program more. Unlike food stamps, which just give recipients a lump sum dollar amount, WIC covers most foods in quantities. That’s been very helpful for beneficiaries—they’ve been able to keep receiving the same amounts of grains and proteins, for example, even as prices have risen. But it’s meant the program is spending more. “It protected families, but it does increase the cost of providing those foods to families,” Neuberger said.

Neuberger was crystal clear that WIC is, for now, intact. “The program is fully open now, there aren’t waiting lists, there aren’t cuts,” she said. “But it’s really important for that final funding legislation to include enough money for everyone to continue to be served at the current benefit level.”

If WIC starts putting people on waiting lists, that would return it to how it operated in the 70s and 80s, when the program was new and states didn’t enroll everyone who applied. In 1997 lawmakers in both parties committed to fully funding it so that everyone can be served. Since then, research has consistently found that WIC participation leads to the birth of healthier babies, better nutrition for babies and kids, less food insecurity, higher immunization rates, and higher scores of mental development for children later on. It also gets big returns; for every dollar it spends on prenatal services, it saves $2.48 in health care costs.

“Remarkably that commitment has held,” Neuberger said. “So, if there were a cut, it would be walking away from more than 25 years of precedent.”

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.

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