Sharon Astyk at Casaubon’s Book has a great post up about the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, or WIC, which is now on the budgetary chopping block. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that an appropriations bill approved by the House would result in WIC turning away 300,000 – 450,000 low-income women and children eligible for its assistance next year.
WIC serves groups that are at nutritional risk and at a stage when proper nutrition is especially important: children up to age five and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum. Beneficiaries get vouchers to purchase specific foods that provide important nutrients – iron-fortified cereal, fruits and vegetables, milk, canned fish, bread, etc. The program also provides nutrition education and breastfeeding promotion and support. Because WIC is a federal grant program that provides funds to state WIC agencies, there’s some state-to-state variation in all of this.
Sharon discusses some of WIC’s shortcomings but points out that the program has important benefits — and that the right thing to do is improve the program, not cut its funding:
WIC serves pregnant women and children under five years old – the ages at which nutritional sufficiency is most critical for brain development and long term good health. At last count, almost half the nation’s infants were on WIC which serves people up to 185% of the poverty level.
A number of studies have shown that WIC is associated with better birth outcomes for at risk populations – children whose mothers are on WIC prenatally and after birth tend to have higher birth rates, lower infant mortality (and US infant mortality rates among poor infants are a scandal) and fewer premature births. WIC has repeatedly shown to return well – every dollar spent on WIC reduces health care and other costs between 1,77 and 3.50, depending on which study you take.
… In a nation with rapidly expanding health costs and few tools to contain them, cutting WIC is completely insane. WIC needs the resources to expand and shift its mission – the foods that were primarily essential in 1971, when WIC was founded are no longer the right primary foods. WIC’s failures, however, are not fundamental – they are failures based on their origin in a 1970s hunger response culture, and could be updated – at little cost. In the long term, it might even cost less per person.
WIC itself has an essential mission – and one that will only grow more urgent in a society of declining resource availability. Keeping and child mortality low, and ensuring fewer health costs – both in the near term in infancy and childhood, and over a lifetime, is one of the things we can do for little cost.
You can read the whole thing here.
According to the CBPP, the House-approved bill puts WIC’s FY 2012 budget at $6 billion — a cut of $733 million from the FY 2011 amount. Is our country really so messed up that we can’t find $7 billion to invest in nutrition to low-income pregnant women and children who need it? I hope the Senate appropriations will show that we haven’t slid so far into shame.