Spotlight Exclusives

With Enrollment and Food Prices Rising, WIC Faces Potential Funding Shortfall

Katie Bergh Katie Bergh, posted on

Few federal aid programs have maintained a bipartisan consensus of support as much as the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC. But despite that support, a new paper from Katie Bergh and Zoe Neuberger of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the program could be underfunded by close to $1 billion even if Congress grants the Biden administration’s budget request. The main reasons: Rising enrollment, largely due to making WIC more accessible during the pandemic, and rising food prices due to inflation. Bergh spoke with Spotlight recently about the dilemma; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with looking at some of the reasons why the WIC program needs more funding, and then we can go through the approaches by the House and the Senate

We put out a paper with some new estimates based on updated data that the Department of Agriculture just put out. And it’s becoming increasingly clear to us that WIC, which is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, will need significantly more funding next year that goes well beyond the amounts that were included in proposals in either the House or the Senate to continue serving all eligible families with the full science-based benefit.

That’s for a couple of reasons, one of which is great news: participation is higher than was initially anticipated. And that’s good news because for many years, take-up among eligible low-income families has been fairly low in WIC and much lower than it is in other similar programs. In 2020, which is the most recent year we have data for, only about half of people who are eligible for WIC actually participated in the program. And WIC has such amazing, well-documented benefits for health, development, and nutrition education outcomes, that it’s really important that if families are eligible for WIC, that they’re able to connect to WIC supports.

Participation is going up for a variety of reasons. Policymakers have been working really hard over the last couple of years to reduce participation barriers to WIC, to make it easier to enroll, make it easier to recertify when you’re still eligible, make it easier to use your benefits when you go to a grocery store. Also, the increase in the value of the benefit through the enhanced benefit for fruits and vegetables has helped drive up enrollment. So, that part of the equation is great news.

The other major factor that’s driving WIC’s additional funding needs is simply food costs. We all know that if you’ve been to a grocery store, you know that food is more expensive than it has been in the past and unfortunately food costs are a bit higher than they were originally anticipated to be. So, those two factors—higher participation and higher food costs—is why WIC will need more funds.

Do you have a sense of which of those factors is driving increased enrollment more, particularly whether when it comes to easier access and the enhanced fruit and vegetable benefit?

I don’t have that level of detail. I think it’s very clear if you talk to participants, they find the enhanced benefit incredibly valuable. Before this increase, participants were only getting $9 to $11 a month to buy fruits and vegetables. This year they’re getting $25 to $49. That’s a huge difference; I have a three-year-old niece, she eats a lot of berries and fruits or snacks, and that $9 just doesn’t go very far. They really value that additional money to choose the fruits and vegetables that are best for their family.

So, with that background, I guess let’s start with the House and the approach that they’ve taken on WIC.

So, when I say that neither the House nor the Senate bill has provided enough funding based on our most recent estimates, it’s important to acknowledge that the two chambers have taken very different approaches to how they’re funding WIC next year. The proposal from House Republicans was a very partisan bill that has been advancing solely on party lines and pairs an inadequate funding level with a very significant benefit cut. And that benefit cut comes out of the enhanced fruit and vegetable allotment that I just referenced. The funding level is so low that states would need to turn people away. They wouldn’t be able to serve every eligible family who applies for benefits; we estimate that states would have to turn away up to 750,000 eligible people and that would mostly be new moms, toddlers, and preschoolers. And about 4.6 million participants would have their fruit and vegetable benefit cut very significantly. So, in total, about 5.3 million people would either have their WIC benefits reduced or they could lose access to WIC altogether based on the House bill.

They’ve left on recess without passing this bill—is there a sense of when they might take action?

They have indicated that they will revisit things once they’re back from August recess in September. Obviously, there’s not a lot of time left before the end of the fiscal year, so that’s something that they’ll have to return to.

Now, to the Senate. Their legislation meets the administration’s request, but your point is the administration’s request needs to be revisited given the work that you’ve done.

Yes. The process in the Senate has been very different from the House. The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced their Agriculture funding bill on a unanimous bipartisan vote. And as you mentioned, the Senate fully funded the president’s budget request with the intention of being able to serve every eligible person who applied for WIC and provide them the full science-based benefit, including the fruit and vegetable increase. Unfortunately, the president’s budget is formulated months and months in advance and is based on a best estimate. And since the time that the president’s budget was released, we now know that those two factors, participation and food costs, are much higher than was originally anticipated. So even though the Senate has moved forward with the best of intentions of meeting the needs of the program, we now know that, based on the latest data, that’s likely an inadequate amount.

I think we have some really encouraging signs coming out of the Senate. Senator (Martin) Heinrich (D-N.M.), who is the chair of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee in the Senate, made some comments when they were marking up their bill that acknowledged that he was going to be committed to continuing to monitor food costs and participation with the goal of ensuring that they can meet both of those goals of serving every eligible family and providing the full benefit.

And in the Senate, it’s still at least somewhat of a bipartisan process.

Yes, particularly in the Agriculture subcommittee, it’s been bipartisan so far.

I know your work probably didn’t specifically focus on this, but I’ll ask in any case: is there data that’s starting to come in to quantify the impact of the expanded fruit and vegetable benefit?

Yes. So, in addition to the anecdotes you hear from talking to participants, there is some interesting preliminary evidence that has come in. Not rigorous peer-reviewed studies at this point, but some preliminary evidence showing that there’s some really significant impacts on fruit and vegetable consumption, particularly for WIC-eligible toddlers. This is something that is working well with the goals of the program, which is helping low-income families meet their very specific nutrition needs during this vulnerable time of young childhood.

I also just want to underscore how important the WIC program is. One thing that’s important to mention is, in recognition of the four decades of evidence we have about the effectiveness of this program, this potential funding shortfall is actually a little bit unprecedented.  There has been a bipartisan commitment to fully fund expected participation in this program for more than 25 years, since 1997. I think that is a signal of the bipartisan support for the program historically, and also how effective the program is. And I think it’s really important that we don’t go back at this point. We worked really hard to connect eligible families to those benefits. We don’t want to be sending a signal that WIC is anything other than an accessible program that’s there when you need it.


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