For the first time in decades, many states may begin turning away eligible applicants from the aid program that provides vital access to food to low-income women and their children.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a federally funded program known as WIC, has traditionally received bipartisan support from lawmakers. But broader pressure to cut spending among some House Republicans has jeopardized the program’s ability to provide benefits to every eligible person who applies.
Agriculture Department warned last month that the program could see a $1 billion shortfall And if Congress does not increase funding, millions of eligible pregnant and postpartum women and their babies could risk losing nutrition assistance this year.
Some House Republicans have pushed for maintain funding Despite a recent increase in the number of participants, it remains at almost the same level as in the past few years. The effort is part of a larger effort among conservatives to rein in federal spending in an effort to address the country’s growing debt load.
Lawmakers have been divided for months over the level of federal spending, raising the risk of a partial government shutdown this month. Congress passed a stopgap measure in November that allows states to continue normal operations for the WIC program. But MPs are opposing the January 19 deadline to increase funding.
Senate and House leaders said Sunday they had reached a broad agreement on total government spending. However, that deal has faced opposition from far-right lawmakers, and it is unclear whether Congress will increase funding for WIC.
WIC is not a eligibility program, and Congress is not required to provide funding to allow every eligible person to participate. But Congress has been committed to fully funding the program for the past 25 years, meaning states have been able to provide benefits to every eligible applicant on a large scale.
State and federal officials say the program’s costs have increased due to increased participation and the high cost of food. there were benefits too expanded during the pandemic To allow families to buy more fruits and vegetables, which some Republicans have called for scaling back,
A senior Agriculture Department official said federal officials are not yet aware of any states going on the waiting list. Last month, department officials had spoken about the impact of lack of funding. will likely be felt in the final months Funding is reduced in the fiscal year, and some states may have to suspend benefits as a last resort.
Department officials said participation in WIC increased significantly last year, which may be a result of the end of some pandemic-era aid, such as expanded food stamp benefits, and food inflation squeezing household budgets. Federal and state officials have also worked in recent years to increase outreach and remote services to make the program easier to access.
In the 2023 fiscal year, average monthly participation in the program increased 5 percent from the previous year, with total participants reaching approximately 6.6 million. According to Agriculture Department data, marked years ago For the first time in more than a decade Total participation increased.
Roughly speaking half of all babies Individuals born in the United States receive WIC benefits. Research shows that children who participate eat more nutritious food and are more likely to Your long-term health will be better, Spending on the program is also linked to reduced infant mortality and premature births as well as savings in health care costs after birth. According to studies,
If lawmakers do not increase funding by Jan. 19, states will have enough money to provide WIC benefits through the end of March, according to an Agriculture Department official.
The top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, said it was unclear whether much progress could be made by Jan. 19, but lawmakers could pass a short-term extension of current funding levels until next month, giving them Will get more. Time to work on an agreement. Nevertheless, he said that increasing funding for WIC was “negotiable”.
“It is my hope that we will stop listening to those who are the most staunch House Republicans and actually honor the long-term commitment to giving WIC the funding it needs,” Ms. DeLauro said.
The impasse has raised concerns among some state agencies that are responsible for managing the program’s funding. Minnesota’s WIC Director Kate Franken said that if Congress does not increase funding, the state will have to start putting applicants on a waiting list in the coming months, something officials have not done in nearly three decades.
Pregnant women, infants and children at high nutritional risk will be given priority, postpartum women and children above 1 year of age will be placed first on the waiting list, he said.
The cost of the program has increased due to greater participation and food costs, Ms. Franken said. Officials saw a surge in participation after some pandemic-era benefits expired and they began offering more remote services, including online applications.
Ms. Franken said about 32,000 eligible people in the state could be disenfranchised if funding is lost. Analysis Last month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
Tiare Sanna, Oregon’s WIC program director, said the debate over funding the program comes at a particularly bad time, given the increase in participation and high food costs, and he worries lawmakers will not provide enough funding.
“I am not very optimistic,” Ms Sana said.
Katie Berg, co-author of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis, said it’s encouraging to see an increase in participation because WIC has typically had low participation, but states may be pulling back from outreach due to inadequate funding. Ms. Berg and her co-authors also argued that if states reject applicants, families could be discouraged from applying in coming years. In 2021, Only 51 percent eligible people participatedAccording to the data of Agriculture Department.
Kelly Horton, chief program officer for the Food Research and Action Center, said she expects participation in the program to continue to grow this year given the growing number of people living in poverty and facing food insecurity.
In 2022, 12.8 percent of homes, or 17 million homes, were food insecure According to the Department of Agriculture, at some point during the year, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members. This was more than 10.2 percent last year.
“This program is extremely important,” Ms Horton said. “When you don’t have it, it means someone is going hungry.”
For some families, WIC has helped deal with high expenses. Ebony JJ, 46, a community support worker and mother of three in Washington, D.C., said her youngest son has been receiving assistance through the program for about two years, saving him more than $100 on his monthly grocery costs. Has helped in saving.
“It’s more money that can go to my other bills,” she said.
She said the benefits also allow her to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables for her family instead of processed foods like frozen chicken nuggets. And the program initially helped her afford the kind of milk her son needed after he was born prematurely.
Georgia McHale, interim president of the National WIC Association, said the increase in participation could make this a “really positive moment” but that it is hard to predict what lawmakers will do.
“It is frankly ridiculous that we are entering a situation where there is not enough money,” Ms Machel said.