Billions More for Defense, But Less for Low-Income Moms and Kids

June 10, 2013

Two lesser-known facts about WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

First, unlike most of the major federal nutrition assistance programs, it’s funded by annual appropriations.

This potentially exposes it to cuts designed to bring total non-defense discretionary spending below the caps Congress agreed to as part of the Budget Control Act, the same law that gave us this year’s across-the-board cuts.

Second, WIC does more than provide low-income mothers with coupons or the equivalent to help ensure that they and their young children get enough of the foods and beverages they need for a healthful diet.

WIC also offers participating mothers breastfeeding counseling. The counselors are other mothers who’ve got both the experience and the training to encourage breastfeeding and help with problems some nursing mothers experience.

The Breastfeeding Peer Counselor program was created in 2004 on the basis of compelling evidence that breastfeeding reduces a range of health risks for both babies and their mothers.

Now the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee has decided to block spending on the program unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture is sure that WIC has enough funds to serve all eligible women, infants and children — both those enrolled now and those who will apply.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities doubts that the proposed funding level for WIC — about $6.65 billion — will be enough to cover the costs of food assistance for all these people.

Perhaps if the Agriculture Department uses the program’s contingency reserves to supplement the appropriation, it says.

But the reserves are supposed to be available for unexpected costs, e.g. price spikes in foods the coupons cover, downturns in the economy that increase the number of eligible mothers and children.

So using them to make up for under-funding that can be predicted now would be risky.

WIC has already been whacked by several rounds of mandatory across-the-board cuts. Before these, it had more than $7.04 billion for the current fiscal year.

The cut the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed isn’t mandated.

It’s a choice the subcommittee majority made — one prompted, but not compelled by choices the Appropriations Committee made when it set the funding allocations each subcommittee got.

And these reflect decisions by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

The first of these sets total spending at the level the BCA requires. Both the President’s proposed budget and the Senate’s budget plan set a higher level and still reduce the deficit because they include some revenue-raisers.

The second decision is to ignore the specific spending caps in the BCA. Defense would get more than the cap allows — $26.2 billion more than it has now, in fact.

CBPP estimates that Defense is at least $45 billion over its cap, once funding it gets from other appropriations is factored in.

The unrealized savings get shifted to the non-defense part of the budget, thus requiring larger cuts than the BCA cap itself would force.

But the House Appropriation Committee’s allocations increased funding for Homeland Security and a budget component that combines military construction and Veterans Affairs. So all the other NDD components got smaller allocations to compensate.

Agriculture didn’t fare so badly, though this is cold comfort to the families WIC is supposed to serve.

Cuts to other programs that serve basic human needs will have to be huge. Those lumped together as Labor, Health and Human Services and Education will lose a total of $27.8 billion — 18.6% of what they collectively have now.

Sequestration was dumb to begin with. The House Republican leadership is making it worse by taking a rather casual view of what the law requires — and refusing to even discuss an alternative that would include any tax increases.

Low-income people won’t be the only ones to suffer. But House Republicans seem bound and determined to target cuts where they’ll get hurt.