As we’ve noted previously, the 2014 agriculture appropriations bill moving through the House underfunds WIC, the highly regarded nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children, and as a result could deny WIC benefits and services to eligible women and children at nutritional risk. With the bill moving to the full House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, it’s important to understand what’s at stake.
The House bill relies on two unsound budget choices to try to avoid turning away about 140,000 eligible women and children, according to our updated estimate that’s based on new data.
More than 98 percent of WIC funds are devoted to the core supplemental foods, nutrition education, and health care referrals for which the highly regarded program is known. In recent years, about $100 million has been dedicated to two special purposes — an evidence-based breastfeeding peer counseling program and technology upgrades to convert the program from using paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards, which improves management and reduces costs in the long run.
The House bill would use these funds for benefits if there is a shortfall, which the bill’s funding level is very likely to create — effectively terminating the part of the program that provides breastfeeding counseling to pregnant women and new mothers. This would mark the first time since the breastfeeding program’s creation in 2004 — in response to medical evidence on the health benefits of breastfeeding — that policymakers have denied funding to this part of the program.
Moreover, even with the breastfeeding funds and technology funds, the funding likely would not be adequate to serve all eligible applicants. The bill also relies on WIC’s Contingency Fund to cover the remaining shortfall — a risky move. The Contingency Fund is designed to cover unanticipated costs that arise after the appropriation is enacted — e.g., spikes in dairy prices, in fruit juice prices after a winter freeze, or in egg prices after an avian flu outbreak (allof which have occurred in WIC’s history), or a slowing economy that makes more people eligible for the program. If policymakers tap the Contingency Fund to meet funding needs that we know about before the fiscal year starts, the fund may not be there for unanticipated costs during the year.
The full Appropriations Committee has an opportunity to amend the bill to adequately fund WIC. If the Committee raises WIC funding, the breastfeeding program could stay in place, the program could continue to be modernized, the Contingency Fund could be reserved for truly unanticipated costs — and policymakers could continue their longstanding bipartisan commitment to providing WIC with enough funding to serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply.