Mon. Jul 15th, 2024
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The nutrition program for pregnant people and babies was already facing a $1 billion shortfall. Congress’ struggle to fund the government could make things worse.

This story was originally published by The 19th

By Amanda Becker, The 19th

A federal program that provides nutritious foods for pregnant people and babies is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall — and advocates are worried that for the first time in its 50-year history, it could become a casualty of a dysfunctional congressional appropriations process.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, provided supplemental nutrition to more than 6 million pregnant people, breastfeeding parents, infants and young children in fiscal year 2023.  About 40 percent of the country’s infants participated; more than half of WIC participants are parents and children of color.

If the Biden administration’s total request for WIC funding is not met, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, said in December that states will face “difficult, untenable decisions about how to manage the program.”  The USDA, initially estimated that the program would cost $6.3 billion in 2024. Officials updated that figure late last year, saying they projected an additional $1 billion would be needed due to rising food prices and increased WIC participation.

Historically, someone qualifies for WIC if they are at nutritional risk when they are pregnant, postpartum or are under the age of 5, and no one who qualifies is turned away. But that could change if the 89 WIC programs administered by states, territories and tribal governments are not funded to meet projected needs, advocates for the program warn.

Nell Menefee-Libey, senior manager of public policy for the National WIC Association, explained that a funding shortfall would put agencies in the unprecedented situation of having to prioritize among qualifying WIC participants. There would likely be waiting lists to reduce costs.

The priority would be supporting infant nutrition, whether via breastfeeding parents or by providing lower-cost formula. Non-breastfeeding postpartum parents would likely be the first to be waitlisted, though their infants would still be eligible on their own; next would be 1- to 5-year-old children who do not have high-risk medical issues; then pregnant and breastfeeding people and infants who do not have high-risk medical issues. The USDA would offer guidance, but it would be up to state-level program managers to work out the details.

“So in the middle of a national maternal health crisis, we would be kicking new moms off of WIC. And then the next priority category after that would be older children. But in WIC, that means preschoolers and toddlers, so kids ages 1 to 4,” Menefee-Libey said.

Grocery bags with food from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, WIC, sit in a shopping cart.
There are 89 WIC agencies across all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and five U.S. territories, along with 33 Indigenous tribal organizations that run their own programs separate and apart from the states in which they are located.
(Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

WIC, like most federal spending programs, is currently being funded by a short-term continuing resolution, or CR, that Congress approved last week to keep the government open through early March — the third stopgap since October. The GOP-run House and Democrat-controlled Senate now must agree on 12 appropriations bills that direct discretionary federal spending through September or risk a shutdown.

WIC, which has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress since the first office opened 50 years ago this month in Pineville, Kentucky, has become a point of partisan wrangling. Conservative hardliners in the House of Representatives are insisting on deep cuts to a variety of programs, including to WIC, as a route to limit the scope of the federal government.

But for Democrats — and many moderate Republicans, particularly in the Senate — fully funding WIC is “non-negotiable,” said Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois. “We have to get this done, now, and put food on the table for hungry women and children,” she told The 19th.

Underwood was one of more than 150 Democratic members of Congress who sent a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month urging them to fund WIC without delay. “America’s maternal health crisis is growing worse by the day, and further disruption to WIC in the coming months would be catastrophic,” they wrote.

The disruption noted by the lawakers is the uncertainty created by the CRs. States are dispersing WIC assistance at a faster rate than they are receiving money from the federal government, meaning they are essentially borrowing against future appropriations. Menefee-Libey agreed that if Congress does not appropriate enough money, there will be “catastrophic consequences” for WIC participants.

The progressive-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said last month that if Congress does not appropriate enough to meet the anticipated $1 billion shortfall, there could be as many as 2 million fewer people who are able to participate in WIC, with “harm falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic families.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters earlier this month that “given the size of the funding shortfall, it’s likely that waiting lists would stretch across all — and let me emphasize all — participating categories, affecting both new applicants and mothers, babies and young children enrolled in the program who are up for renewal of benefits.”

There are WIC agencies in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories, along with 33 Indigenous tribal organizations that run their own programs separate and apart from the states in which they are located.

Menefee-Libey said that most WIC participants find WIC because they are participating in Medicaid, the federal government’s health insurance program for low-income Americans, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Other participants hear about WIC from their pediatricians or community partners like food banks, diaper banks and human milk banks for infants.

Any reductions to WIC would come at a time when some Republican governors have rejected federal money earmarked for feeding low-income students, and as GOP members of Congress eye cuts to other food-security efforts such as SNAP, which is up for its twice-a-decade renewal in a farm bill that has also been delayed due to partisan wrangling.

The continuing resolution is funding WIC at 2023 levels but does not include the additional funding requested by the Biden administration.

The upper chamber approved an Agriculture funding bill last year that met the administration’s initial funding request. Senate appropriators — Democrat Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Susan Collins of Maine — have both said they are committed to fully funding the WIC program.

But the House is more divided. An appropriations bill approved last year by the House Agriculture Committee proposed funding WIC at $800 million below what was initially requested by the Biden administration. It also aimed to trim a pandemic-era WIC benefit that families can use to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

“In total, the House bill would cut food assistance for, or take it away altogether from, roughly 5.3 million young children and pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding adults,” CBPP estimated of the WIC-related measures.

With the conservative flank of his own conference opposed to multiple programs that are must-haves for Democrats, Republican Speaker Mike Johnson will need Democratic votes to offset GOP defectors to get an appropriations package through the closely divided chamber. Johnson himself has expressed skepticism for funding nutrition programs.

Menefee-Libey said that the three CRs mean “the crisis has been averted in the short-term, but it’s kind of a band-aid on a bullet hole.”

State WIC programs are spending money assuming the needed funds will eventually be appropriated but they “don’t have any sense when Congress is going to come through with the resources they need,” she said. Plus, by early March, the fiscal year will already be half over, so there will be a shorter window of time to make up any budget shortfall, potentially leading to more people being waitlisted en masse than if the shortfall was spread across a full fiscal year.

The CRs have created “a lot of uncertainty, and that’s something that you cannot have when it comes to food security. We are literally talking about where and how women and children are going to get their next meal,” Underwood said.