BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The 2014 agriculture appropriations bill that a House subcommittee will consider today would underfund WIC, the highly regarded nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children. The bill could result in the denial of WIC benefits and services to thousands of eligible women and children at nutritional risk. And it would effectively end the part of the program that provides breastfeeding counseling to pregnant women and new mothers.
The bill bars the use of WIC funds for the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program if that means there wouldn’t be sufficient funds to serve all eligible low-income women, infants, and children who apply. This prohibition would force WIC to cancel the breastfeeding program for most or all of the fiscal year, since the bill’s WIC funding level ($6.655 billion) very likely would be insufficient — and even if it turned out to be sufficient (due to lower-than-expected participation and food costs), the Agriculture Department wouldn’t know that until late in the fiscal year and would have to withhold the breastfeeding funds until then.
If enacted, 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.
Evaluations have found that breastfeeding counseling improves breastfeeding rates and duration. Without this dedicated funding, many states would likely lay off their WIC breastfeeding counselors.
The bill also would help compensate for its underfunding of WIC benefits by withdrawing funding for state investments to strengthen WIC management by converting WIC from paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards.
Even with the withdrawal of funding for breastfeeding counseling and strengthening WIC management, the bill’s underfunding of WIC might force the program to turn away some eligible women and children at nutritional risk. We estimate that if funds were not diverted from these activities to help pay for WIC benefits, the program would have to turn away nearly 200,000 eligible women and children next year. Even if the funds were diverted, we estimate that about 40,000 eligible applicants would be turned away unless the program’s Contingency Fund were drawn down.
To be sure, the Contingency Fund might cover the funding shortfall that the bill would create, but counting on that would be risky. The Contingency Fund is designed to cover unanticipated costs that arise after the appropriation is enacted — such as spikes in dairy prices, in fruit juice prices following a winter freeze, or in egg prices following an avian flu outbreak (all of which have occurred in WIC’s history), or a slowing of the economy that makes more people eligible for the program.
If policymakers rely on the Contingency Fund to meet funding needs that can be anticipated even before the fiscal year starts, the fund may not be there when it’s needed.
Moreover, the Contingency Fund won’t help the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program. Under the bill, WIC must divert the breastfeeding funds to cover any shortfall in paying for WIC benefits before it can tap the Contingency Fund. This is why breastfeeding counselors, often low-income mothers themselves, would likely be laid off under the House bill.
House appropriators should honor the longstanding bipartisan practice of providing WIC enough funding to serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply — without undermining breastfeeding support or depleting the Contingency Fund unless unforeseen circumstances arise.