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Cutting WIC Won’t Solve Our Fiscal Crisis

The House recently passed the agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, which determines how much the government can spend on agriculture, nutrition, and food aid programs. Because the budget plan passed by the House this spring contained deep spending cuts, the House was forced to make similarly deep cuts in these programs.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was targeted for even deeper cuts—even though this program is incredibly valuable for our most vulnerable populations and has no relationship to our rising deficits.

WIC is a highly effective, short-term intervention program that targets low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at risk nutritionally. Recipients receive a package of highly nutritious food and essential supplies, in addition to information about healthy eating and referrals to health care. Still, as the chart shows, the program isn’t serving the entire eligible population—on average, just 56-61 percent of eligible women and children participate.

WIC-benefits
Research shows that women who do participate in WIC give birth to healthier babies, and their children receive higher test scores than children of non-participants. Instead of targeting cuts in benefits when they are needed most—particularly now in the wake of the recession—Congress should look at the budget in its entirety to address deficit reduction.

The cuts made and proposed to WIC in the appropriations bill were sold as cuts targeting waste, fraud, and abuse. These cuts will actually do little to deal with those issues. While real improvements always can and should be made, across-the-board cuts with no changes in the program itself won’t address the problems and will only result in fewer services for needy families.

For example, Congress took the opportunity to improve WIC in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last year. Program changes to curb documented waste, fraud, or abuse should be addressed during these reauthorization periods and not as an attempt to make cuts to this valuable program.

Finally, only 9 percent of WIC funds go to administrative costs, with the remainder providing valuable resources and food to families, as shown in this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy priorities.

WIC administrative costs

The return on investment for WIC is huge and provides great bang for the taxpayer’s buck. By cutting WIC, Congress would be losing the savings the program brings by ensuring mothers and their children remain healthy. Research shows that preterm births cost the country $26 billion a year; for every dollar spent on women in WIC, Medicaid saves $1.92 to $4.21.

Critics often call for nutrition programs such as WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), and child nutrition to be combined into one big program, yet one of WIC’s strongest assets is its ability to tailor its benefits to the women and children it serves.

Congress must take responsible action on our nation’s deficits, but looking to cut programs that serve vulnerable families is irresponsible. Domestic programs that address poverty only take up 14 percent of the budget and have recently grown in response to increased need because of the recession. Congress must create a circle of protection around programs such as WIC, which help struggling families put food on the table.

Ben D'Avanzo is Mimi Meehan fellow at Bread for the World.

 

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