Connecting state and local government leaders
The number of low-income women signing up for the federal Women, Infants and Children program is sharply increasing. But funding levels don't look likely to change.
Due to the rising cost of food, an unexpectedly large number of low-income women are turning to a federal program to help feed themselves and their young children. But as Congress is about to enter contentious debates over spending next month, neither the Democratic Senate nor the Republican House is proposing to increase funding to keep up with the demand. That could mean states will be forced to turn away hundreds of thousands of women seeking help next year.
A recent analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the number of women signing up for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, has picked up sharply since the start of the fiscal year that began last October.
That’s in contrast to the previous fiscal year when the program grew at a much slower rate. Based on that, the Biden administration projected that on average about 6.5 million women a month would be on WIC the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and asked for only a modest increase in funding in its budget proposal in March.
But since the beginning of the fiscal year in October, the number of women on the WIC has grown significantly by about 216,000 to 6.6 million in April, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
Should the program keep growing as rapidly as it has been the last few months, the analysis projects that about 260,000 to 340,000 more women a month will be seeking help than the administration predicted.
WIC assists millions of women who are either pregnant, breastfeeding or have children younger than six months, by paying for certain kinds of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, at an important “moment in development, either for pregnancy or to support postpartum health or for young kids,” the report said.
A 10% increase in the cost of these foods is part of the reason more women are seeking help. They are having trouble “stretching their grocery budgets,” the report said. And while inflation has flattened a little, the analysis says that the price of these foods is expected to go up by another 8% this year.
Another factor helping to drive up the number of women on WIC, is that Congress in the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act made it easier for them to stay on the program. States, for instance, were excused from having to require women to come in for in-person visits several times a year
“If you're bringing your preschooler and your toddler and your baby along, the visits can be really challenging to manage with your work schedule, or to arrange transportation or child care for,” said Katie Bergh, a senior policy analyst for the center and co-author of the report.
Under ARPA, Congress also increased the amount women receive to buy fruits and vegetables based on recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a congressionally chartered nonprofit.
Women, depending on whether they were pregnant or had recently given birth, were getting between $9 and $11 a month. After the adjustment, they began getting between $25 and $40 a month.
Whether Congress will increase funding is unclear. But House Republicans are pushing to sharply decrease funding.
A bill that the Republican House Appropriations Committee passed in June would cut funding for WIC by $185 million. Specifically, House Republicans want to cut the additional amount women and their children receive for fruits and vegetables by between 56% to 70%. Pregnant women, for example, would see the amount they receive for those foods go down from $44 a month to $13.
“That's a pretty significant decrease in your purchasing power for something that we all know is a very healthy, really nutritious part of someone's diet,” said Bergh.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Department of Agriculture, acknowledged that the Republican proposal involved some “tough decisions.”
“We simply cannot continue down this path of spending large sums of money without regard to the fiscal future of our nation or its effect on inflation,” he said.
Harris defended the cuts saying that increases were approved as part of a COVID relief bill. Now that the pandemic is over, he said, “we must work to right-size programs.”
President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has proposed a modest increase of $615 million to bring the program total to $6.3 billion, which would be about $1 billion less than what would be needed to pay for the projected increase in the program, the analysis said. Senate Democrats appear to be in step with the president’s proposal.
“As more data have become available,” the analysis said, “it is now clear that even the Senate’s higher funding level is insufficient.”
Bergh is somewhat hopeful that Senate Democrats still might try to get more in the upcoming negotiations with House Republicans. As the Senate appropriations committee was about to pass a budget bill calling for the small increase in WIC funding, the Democratic head of the subcommittee that oversees agriculture department funding, said he would be keeping an eye on whether more funding might be needed.
“As the appropriations process unfolds,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, at the hearing, “I am committed to monitoring participation and food costs so that we can provide enough funding to make sure that all eligible families who seek help from WIC can be served and receive the program’s current science-based food benefits.”
A USDA spokesman only said that the administration is “pleased” to see more women signing up for WIC, “as we are only serving approximately half of eligible women, infants, and children. It is the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal to reach more eligible households through WIC, which is one of the most powerful, evidence-based public health programs available, with a long history of improving health and developmental outcomes for children.”
Several state human services offices that Route Fifty reached out to declined to comment. But Bergh suggested that states could put people applying for WIC on a waiting list until they learn whether Congress will increase funding more than Democrats are now proposing.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Kery_Murakami