BEYOND THE NUMBERS
WIC: Critical Support at a Critical Period of Life
As we explained this morning, evidence continues to mount that lack of adequate food, stable housing, health care, and other essentials in infancy and early childhood can affect children’s brain development, with long-term consequences for their physical, mental, academic, and economic well-being. WIC is one of several programs that give very young children and their families critical support during this critical period of life. Extensive research over the past four decades shows that WIC — formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — contributes to positive developmental and health outcomes for low-income women and young children. In particular, WIC participation is associated with:
- Healthier births. Prenatal participation in WIC helps mothers give birth to healthier infants with higher birth weights. WIC participation also helps lower infant mortality. For example, a recent Ohio study found lower infant mortality among WIC participants than non-participants — especially among African Americans, where the infant mortality rate for WIC participants was half that for non-participants.
- More nutritious diets. Strong evidence suggests that WIC participation increases infants’ and children’s intakes of some essential vitamins and minerals. As a result, WIC has helped reduce the prevalence of iron deficiency and anemia. Mothers participating in WIC are also more likely to follow recommended infant feeding practices, like delaying the introduction of cow’s milk until a baby turns 1. In addition, the Agriculture Department’s 2009 revisions to the WIC food package to encourage healthier eating boosted participants’ consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. WIC may also have contributed to the recent halt in the rise in obesity among low-income preschool children.
- Stronger connections to preventive health care. Low-income infants and children who participate in WIC receive health care referrals and are much more likely to receive appropriate preventive and curative care. For example, low-income children participating in WIC are just as likely to be immunized as more affluent children — and much more likely than low-income children not participating in WIC.
- Improved cognitive development. New research links prenatal and early childhood participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic achievement. Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age 2 than similar children whose mothers did not participate. Moreover, the benefit persisted into the school years, as children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant performed better on reading assessments.