House Republicans Give New Meaning To “Women And Children First”

June 17, 2011

House Republicans have decided that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) must be cut to “restore the fiscal health of our nation.”

These words from the House Appropriations Committee’s report, which also assures us that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have sufficient funding for its core missions, including “helping the most needy in our domestic feeding programs.”

WIC currently serves nearly 9 million low-income pregnant women, infants, children under five and their mothers, provided that a health professional has found them to be “at nutritional risk,” e.g., because they’re anemic, underweight or not consuming enough of the right kinds of things for a healthy diet.

Mothers and children in these categories are eligible if their family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty line. Those who participate — or have family members who participate — in certain other federally-funded benefits programs can be automatically eligible.

In some states, this apparently makes for some exceptions to the regular eligibility ceiling. The Appropriations Committee wants USDA to focus solely on “the neediest or the hardest hit by the economic downturn.” Forget about the just plain needy.

The committee’s report also says that the Secretary of Agriculture can supplement the appropriation, if necessary, by using funds left over from the current fiscal year, plus funds in a separate contingency account.

Seems to imply that there’ll be enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. Not so.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has crunched the numbers. It reports that, even when you factor in these additional funds, state WIC programs would have to turn away 200,000-350,000 low-income mothers and children.

Here in the District, 400-600 could lose out on the healthy foods and diverse preventive services that make WIC so important to the health and development of poor children in their critical early years.

The numerical ranges reflect uncertainties about food prices.

WIC participants get coupons or the equivalent to purchase certain amounts of specific foods and beverages. Their monthly allotments reflect what states have chosen from a federally-established food basket, which provides for different items in different quantities according to scientifically-determined needs.

So when costs of the items in the basket rise, per participant costs rise as well. Federal funding doesn’t.

Anyone who’s been to the grocery store lately knows that food prices have shot up. CBPP says that experts expect a further increase of at least 2% before the end of next fiscal year. Some think a 5% increase is likely. But who knows what droughts, floods, another spike in gas prices, etc. could mean?

We do know that the WIC cut would have no meaningful impact on the deficit. The continuing resolution that’s funding the federal government now provides only $6.73 billion for the program. The House has just voted to reduce next year’s funding to $6.05 billion.

Chump change “savings” in light of a deficit that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 trillion next year, even under the House Republican’s radical budget plan.

And a true case of penny wise, pound foolish. Lots of research shows that participation in WIC reduces costly health problems and developmental delays.

USDA reports that every $1.00 spent on WIC has saved as much as $3.13 in health care costs during the first two months after an infant’s birth. Per dollar savings increased to about $3.50 over an 18 year period.

Looking at the issue from the other side, the Partnership for America’s Economic Success reviews a range of physical, mental, behavioral and academic problems linked to prenatal and early childhood food insecurity.

These are costly in economic as well as human terms. Consider not only the direct outlays for health care, special education and the like, but the long-term costs in lost productivity — and tax revenues.

But House Republicans aren’t really thinking in economic terms. They’re going after federal programs that don’t fit their ideological framework — with those they’ve shrewdly decided to call “welfare” high on the list.

If they were really concerned about promoting prosperity, they’d see WIC as a good investment. Really concerned about the deficit, they’d agree to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire.

Just one week of what these cuts give America’s millionaires could fund the year-long increase for WIC that the President requested and leave millions for other purposes.