Clock Ticking for Many Women, Infants, and Children

BlogOct 7 2013

If the federal government is shut down much longer, a program providing vital nutrition assistance to nearly 9 million infants, young children, and mothers could come to a standstill for lack of funds.

Even with the partial government shutdown, many important government programs are able to keep running. This is either through the vagaries of the budget process or by the dedication of essential workers who will temporarily work without pay. However, other programs that have been deemed “non-essential” to health and safety, and, lacking funds, will stop providing benefits and services either immediately or within the next month. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, is one such program.

In 2011, WIC served nearly nine million pregnant women, new mothers, and children under five each month, and a total of 14 million over the entire year. WIC is not an entitlement program. A certain level of funding is determined by Congress, and that money is used to serve as many eligible applicants as possible, prioritizing those most at risk. In recent years, the program has been able to serve all eligible applicants, but no money has yet been allocated for the current fiscal year. Although it is federally funded, and is monitored by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the program is administered by states and other sub-national governments (such as American Indian tribes).i According to the Washington Post, these state and local administrators have the funds to continue the program for a month, at most, without additional federal funds, and some don’t have enough for even a week. More-recent reports, though, indicate that all states should have sufficient funding to continue the WIC program to the end of October.

What is WIC? Created in 1973, it is designed to improve the health of low-income pregnant women, new mothers, and young children. In particular, WIC serves pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers who have had a child in the past year, non-breastfeeding women who have had a child in the past six months, and young children, all of whom must be deemed by a doctor to be at “nutritional risk.”ii Nutritional risk includes a variety of physical and environmental traits that are a risk for poor health outcomes (see here for a list of criteria). In addition, applicants must have a family income below 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold, or be enrolled in TANF, , or SNAP to be eligible. The program provides coupons for specific nutritious foods, as well as providing health education programs for new mothers. Some local WIC programs also provide nonfood items such as breast pumps.

Many studies have examined WIC’s benefits to children’s health. For a long time, we have known that that WIC reduces the incidence of low birth weight,iii but other studies show that it reduces cases of iron deficiency,iv household food insecurity,v and maternal smoking during pregnancy,vi and increases immunization rates.vii There seems to be some economic benefit as well: one study found that WIC participants were more likely to be employed one year after their child was born than were non-participants,viii and economic analyses have shown a return on investment of between $1.77 and $3.13 per dollar spent. Unsurprisingly, there is overwhelming bipartisan support for a program that puts healthy food on the plates of needy children and their caregivers. However, some have voiced concerns that the value of the program over a simple cash handout has never been established.ix In addition, there are concerns that the way infant formula is subsidized though the program can decrease breastfeeding rates, though recent changes to the menu of foods provided are designed to address that problem somewhat.

Despite reservations, there is strong evidence that WIC works. It helps our most vulnerable children get a healthy start in life, and any lengthy stop to those services could do real harm.

[i] Cole, N., Jacobson, J., Nichols-Barrer, I., & Fox, M. K. (2011). WIC food packages policy options study: Final report Report # WIC-11-FOOD). Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Research and Analysis. Available at:

[ii] Coleman, S., Nichols-Barrer, I. P., Redline, J. E., Devaney, B. L., Ansel, S. V., & Joyce, T. (2012). Effects of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): A review of recent research (Report # WIC-12-WM). Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Research and Analysis. Available at: .

[iii] Kennedy, E. T., Gershoff, S., Reed, R., & Austin, J. E. (1982). Evaluation of the effect of WIC supplemental feeding on birth weight. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 80(3), 220-227.

Kowalski-Jones, L. & Duncan, G. J. (2002). Effects of participation in the WIC program on birthweight: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. American Journal of Public Health, 92(5), 799-804.

[iv] Lee, B. J. & Mackey-Bilaver, L. (2007). Effects of WIC and Food Stamp Program participation on child outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 29(4), 501-517.

[v] Metallino-Katsaras, E., Gorman, K. S., Wilde, P., & Kallio, J. (2011). A longitudinal study of WIC participation on household food insecurity. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 15(5), 627-633.

[vi] Yunzal-Butler, C., Joyce, T., & Racine, A. (2010) Maternal smoking and the timing of WIC enrollment. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 14(3), 318-331.

[vii] Cortese, M. M., Diaz, P. S., Samala, U., Mennone, J. Z., et al. (2004)  Underimmunization in Chicago children who dropped out of WIC. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 26(1), 29-33.

[viii] Livermore, M. M. & Powers, R. S. (2006). Employment of unwed mothers: The role of government and social support. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 27(3), 479-494.

[ix] Besharov, D. J. & Germanis, P. (2001). Rethinking WIC: An evaluation of the Women, Infants, and Children Program. Washington, DC: the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Page 95.