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May 23, 2011
PROPOSED WIC CUTS WOULD END FOOD ASSISTANCE FOR 325,000 to 475,000 LOW-INCOME WOMEN AND CHILDREN
By Zoë Neuberger and Robert Greenstein
House Republicans are proposing a cut in the WIC nutrition program that would force WIC to turn away 325,000 to 475,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year. This cut — part of the 2012 appropriations bill that Rep. Jack Kingston, chairman of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, unveiled today — would break a 15-year commitment by Administrations and Congresses of both parties to provide enough WIC funding to serve all eligible women, infants, and children who apply. The proposal is particularly striking given Republican insistence late last year on extending all of President Bush’s tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest households as well as Republican efforts of recent weeks to preserve lucrative tax breaks for oil companies at a time of huge company profits. The appropriations bill reduces WIC funding from $6.73 billion this year to $5.90 billion in 2012 — a cut of more than $800 million below the fiscal year 2011 level, which obviously is much less than the continuing cost of the high-end Bush tax cuts, oil company tax breaks, and various other write-offs for well-to-do taxpayers or powerful corporations. WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, and health care referrals to roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age five who are at nutritional risk. An extensive body of research documents WIC’s high degree of effectiveness in improving birth outcomes, reducing child anemia, and improving participants’ nutrition and health. Unlike other key low-income nutrition programs, such as SNAP (formerly called food stamps) and school lunches, eligible WIC recipients have no entitlement to benefits. If funds are insufficient, eligible applicants are put on a waiting list for services. The exact number of people that the proposed funding level could serve will depend in part on food prices — the higher the prices for the foods that WIC provides, the fewer participants a given funding level can serve. Food prices have been rising relatively rapidly in recent months and are expected to continue doing so. The average federal per-participant cost of providing WIC foods in February 2011 (the latest month for which these data are available) was 3.4 percent higher than when the fiscal year started in October 2010 and 5.2 percent higher than in February 2010. Economists have varying views on the size of the likely increase in food prices over the next 18 months. If the cost of WIC foods increases by 2 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2012 — the smallest increase likely — the proposed funding cut would force WIC to serve roughly 325,000 fewer
people in 2012 than in 2011. If, as some food price experts believe likely, the price increase is 5 percent, WIC would have to be cut by roughly 475,000 people. Both of these estimates reflect the use of all contingency funds, as well as the use of carryover funds from fiscal year 2011, to close funding shortfalls. The number of eligible women, infants, and children who would be turned away from WIC under the proposed funding level may be even higher than these estimates suggest. The WIC program purchases infant formula using a competitive bidding system that reduces federal costs by approximately $2 billion annually. In recent years, when states have entered into a new contract, their infant formula costs typically have increased as a result of smaller rebates (or discounts) and higher infant formula prices. At least ten states will enter into new contracts with infant formula manufacturers in 2012 to purchase formula for their WIC programs, which is likely to raise program costs and thereby reduce the number of people WIC can serve.