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As food costs increase, more women than expected have been signing up for the program. Without increased funding, states may have to turn women and their children away.
With Congress still at an impasse on a spending bill to avert a government shutdown, one of the looming questions facing states is how they will deal with a shortage of funding to help low-income women feed themselves and their children.
More women than expected have been signing up for a program called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC.
Texas, for example, has seen the number of women in the program rise by one-fifth from August 2021 to August 2023, said a spokesperson for the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. Meanwhile, the cost of food nationwide grew by 15% between fiscal year 2021 and 2022 and is expected to grow by another 14% this year.
Advocacy groups and the Biden administration have said that unless a spending deal includes $1.4 billion more in funding for the program, states will begin running out of money to serve all the women seeking help over the next few months.
“I think we would start to see a real crisis in the program as soon as [early next year] without additional investment from Congress,” said Nell Menefee-Libey, public policy manager for the National WIC Association, which represents the public health agencies that run the program.
With the possibility of a highly-divided Congress agreeing to increase funding for the program highly uncertain, state WIC directors have “brainstormed” how to “find potential solutions for budget shortfalls,” said a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
But should Congress be unable to agree to spend more money on the program, states may have to close WIC clinics and scale back outreach efforts. And, though state WIC directors said it would be a last resort, some agencies acknowledged they may be forced to turn away women who are pregnant or have recently had children.
Without more funding from Congress, an analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in July estimated that 260,000 to 340,000 women a month around the country could be denied help.
A shutdown is appearing more and more likely. Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had reportedly planned to bring a proposal for a short-term spending bill up for a vote on Saturday, but that now appears unlikely. And even if they do, it will likely be rejected by Senate Democrats, causing a standoff with a deadline approaching in less than a week.
Speaking to her constituents on a phone town hall Wednesday night, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Virginia Democrat who has been trying to work out a compromise with Republicans, warned that the chances of a shutdown are “real, real great.”
While federal offices may close and workers be furloughed during a shutdown, states will continue to administer the program and should have enough unspent money to keep the aid going, Menefee-Libey said.
Some WIC agencies contacted by Route Fifty, including the California Department of Public Health, have echoed Menefee-Libey’s comment and said they believe that even without additional federal funding, they will have enough money to avoid having to turn people away and putting them on waiting lists.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health said the agency is “diligently monitoring the situation,” but even without additional funding, it “can make adjustments to the WIC program without needing to turn participants away.”
But what worries Menefee-Libey is that, like in past shutdowns, women hear about a government shutdown and think “the government won't be open for business. So people will not show up for their appointments and may drop off the program," she said. “We're trying to make it very clear to families participating in programs that in the event of a government shutdown, WIC will remain open for business as usual, for as long as state and local agencies have the funds on hand to continue doing so.”
But the broader question is what states will do if Congress reaches a budget deal that does not include increased spending for the program.
President Joe Biden has urged Congress to include more funding in a short-term spending bill. And Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, vowed in a tweet earlier this month to “fight tooth and nail to make sure no one loses their WIC benefits or is put on a waitlist” as part of any short-term bill to prevent a government shutdown.
However, the proposed short-term spending bill that McCarthy is pitching to conservatives would reportedly reduce federal spending in next year’s budget in return for their support to avoid a shutdown.
Menefee-Libey said her group would oppose such a move because “WIC needs more resources in the coming fiscal year, not less, as more families are accessing WIC services.”
In another negative sign that more money may not be coming, a year-long budget proposal passed by the House Appropriations Committee in June called for cutting WIC spending by $185 million.
Given the uncertainty, state WIC directors have discussed closing WIC clinics and offering the services through nonprofits and health care providers in an effort to try to reduce spending enough to avoid having to turn women away. They have also discussed trying to find ways to lower the cost of foods, and cutting "non-discretionary expenses,” such as outreach efforts.
“That would be a really unfortunate outcome here,” Menefee-Libey said, noting that Congress over the years has encouraged states to connect low-income women in need to the program. But if Congress cannot find a way to increase WIC spending, she said, states may have no choice but to “pull back some of those outreach efforts.”
The worst-case scenario is that women will be turned away and put on waiting lists.
While Menefee-Libey and some state WIC agencies said they thought they could avoid that, others have left open the possibility that women may have to be put on waiting lists.
In North Carolina, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said the agency is not planning on putting those seeking help on waiting lists. However, she said that could change.
“Not having the necessary funding endangers our ability to adequately serve all those who need WIC benefits,” she said. “Our ability to serve WIC beneficiaries depends on the funding allocated to us by the federal budget.”
That would be “the last option utilized,” the West Virginia agency spokesperson said. But she also acknowledged that if there are significant funding shortfalls, state regulations would require the agency to prioritize who received the assistance.
According to those regulations, assisting pregnant and breastfeeding women and infants with nutrition-related medical conditions would be the top priority. Helping postpartum women who need help because they are homeless or migrants would be a lower priority.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami