BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supports millions of people in low-income families during important life stages — during and after pregnancy, and from birth until a child’s 5th birthday — by providing nutritious foods, nutrition education, referrals to health care, and other services. WIC has a strong track record of positive impacts on birth outcomes, health, and cognitive development. It is also a highly cost-effective investment, with each additional dollar spent on prenatal services through WIC saving an average of $2.48 in health care costs. As a result, there has been a bipartisan commitment for more than 25 years to adequately fund WIC to ensure no eligible family is turned away.
Unfortunately, WIC is facing a funding shortfall for the first time in decades due to higher-than-expected participation and food costs, jeopardizing access to this highly effective program and risking disproportionate harm for Black and Hispanic families. The stopgap funding bill currently in place through November 17 will prevent cuts to WIC participation and benefits for the next several weeks, but it did not provide the additional resources that are needed to close the funding gap facing WIC. With a shortfall looming and no assurance that additional funding is coming, states may soon take steps to try to slow enrollment and reduce spending.
To forestall measures to reduce participation while Congress continues to work on full-year funding bills, Congress must provide additional resources for WIC in upcoming legislation to extend the current stopgap funding bill. Congress must also ensure WIC has sufficient funding in full-year funding legislation to continue serving every eligible person who seeks to participate and to provide participants with the full, science-based food benefit.
Annual funding bills proposed in the House and advancing in the Senate would fail to accomplish these goals. We estimate these bills would force states to turn away 600,000 eligible postpartum adults and young children, resulting in new parents and children missing out on the program’s benefits and services during critical windows for child development. In addition to an inadequate funding level that would force states to turn hundreds of thousands of eligible people away, the House bill also proposes slashing benefits for another 4.7 million pregnant and postpartum participants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
If there is a funding shortfall, states would put some eligible applicants on waiting lists and would be unable to continue serving some participants when they reached the end of their eligibility period and needed to renew their benefits. Under WIC’s prioritization rules, those who would be turned away first are postpartum adults who are not breastfeeding, and preschoolers.
The eligible people who would be put on waiting lists are disproportionately in Black and Hispanic families. Due to long-standing barriers to housing, education, and employment opportunities and other forms of discrimination impacting people of color, Black and Hispanic families face greater economic hardship — including lower wages, higher unemployment, higher poverty rates, and higher levels of deep poverty — and thus may be more likely to qualify for and seek out assistance from WIC.
Because Black and Hispanic families are more likely to receive WIC than families of other races or ethnicities, a WIC funding shortfall that forces children onto waiting lists would disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic children. To illustrate the potential impact of a funding shortfall, there are about 755,000 Black children, 1.5 million Hispanic children, 2.1 million white children, and 715,000 children of another race aged 1 through 4 currently participating in WIC (participants may also be Hispanic regardless of their race). Particularly at risk are the 165,000 Black 3-year-olds, 357,000 Hispanic 3-year-olds, 482,000 white 3-year-olds, and 168,000 3-year-olds of another race now participating in WIC; if Congress does not provide adequate funding for WIC, these 3-year-olds are likely to be among the first turned away from WIC when they turn 4 and their benefits must be renewed.
More eligible 3- or 4-year-olds would be put on waiting lists if their families apply for WIC for the first time. Good nutrition throughout early childhood is critical for growth and development, and even short periods of food hardship may pose long-term risks for children. Research also suggests that children who participate in WIC longer have better diet quality than children who stop receiving benefits earlier.
Similarly, a WIC funding shortfall that forces eligible postpartum adults who aren’t breastfeeding onto waiting lists would also disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic parents because they are more likely to receive WIC than parents of other races or ethnicities. There are roughly 203,000 Hispanic WIC participants, 116,000 Black WIC participants, 336,000 white WIC participants, and 78,000 participants of another race who are currently pregnant and who will need to renew their benefits shortly after giving birth. If WIC lacks sufficient funding and if they are not breastfeeding, they could at that point be put on a waiting list instead of continuing to receive benefits. Their infant could still be enrolled and receive formula through WIC, but these new parents would lose access to WIC’s nutritious foods and other services that are important in the postpartum months.
In addition, breastfeeding rates are lower among Black parents after childbirth. The rate of exclusive breastfeeding through 6 months among Black, non-Hispanic parents is 20 percent lower than the rate for all parents. This disparity is also reflected among WIC participants, meaning Black parents are less likely to be breastfeeding and thus more likely than other groups to be turned away from WIC if there is inadequate funding — causing further harm for a group already at higher risk for severe pregnancy-related health conditions, which often develop in the postpartum period.
While WIC provides meaningful support to encourage breastfeeding, breastfeeding is also influenced by factors outside of WIC. Various historical, social, and economic factors might make it harder for Black parents to overcome the substantial barriers to breastfeeding that all low-income families face. These include, generations later, the impact of the trauma that enslaved Black people faced when forced to breastfeed the white infants of slaveholders (often at the expense of breastfeeding their own infants) as well as more recent developments such as racially targeted marketing by infant formula manufacturers, which may contribute to greater prevalence of formula-feeding.
With access to WIC’s vital benefits in jeopardy, Congress must act swiftly to provide the funding necessary to ensure WIC can continue to provide the full benefit to every eligible new parent and child.