Happy 42nd Birthday to the Quiet Hero of the American Household
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children serves more than half of American infants. So why do Republicans keep trying to cut it?
My mother’s pocketbook was always massive. In addition to carrying checks, it was also stuffed with receipts, change, and numerous forms of payment for groceries.
Specifically, the green sheet of stamps and the little slips for big cans of juice, opened with a churchkey, and big bricks of The Good Cheese. While we climbed on enormous bags of Kibbles ‘N Bits stacked at the front of the store (“go play in the dog food” she’d say, just trying to get us out of the way long enough to ensure she would pay for everything), Mom would sort through everything on the conveyor belt, one item and voucher at at a time.
It wasn’t until I worked at a grocery store as a teen that I understood how cumbersome the process was. In Oregon, where we lived, shoppers had to collect and organize their various systems of assistance and savings—cards, coupons, vouchers—as well as group their items by mode of purchase. Mothers (because it was always mothers) with children in tow would separate their goods into piles, tucking the required method of payment alongside each.
Not only was it a handful to sort each piece of the purchase, it was also, often, heaped with shame. Selecting the wrong product or size from the shelf, not knowing the quantity permitted, or forgetting that benefits had been reduced due to an aging kid could all result in an awkward dance of cash, checks, or ultimately, inability to pay.
Still, most mothers were more than willing to put up with the unpleasantness to get those staples—the big juice, the cereal, the milk, the cheese.
The process has been streamlined some now, thanks electronic benefits loaded to cards, but since 1975, those slips of paper have been a consistent lifeline to children and families across the nation.
Though “food stamps” and “government cheese” have become interchangeable shorthand for the kinds of assistance programs available to lower-income folks in the United States (and, often, for the ways that poor people are gifted food items they don’t deserve), they technically referring to two different programs with two different origin stories. The first, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides qualified lower-income individuals and families with a specified amount of money to be spent on food items at authorized retailers. Actual paper “stamps” were phased out decades ago in place of electronic cards that are loaded each month.
The second tends to refer to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which expressly provides subsidies for nutritional staples to pregnant and breastfeeding parents, as well as families with kids up to age five.
Though it rarely gets discussed—lawmakers who attack “welfare” spending never check it by name—WIC is as much at risk as any other social program in the event that large-scale cuts are levied against government spending. President Donald Trump’s “skinny budget” sought to reduce spending on WIC by at least $150M, if not more.
It’s also a massively popular, hugely influential program. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the governing body which runs both SNAP and WIC, WIC “serves 53 percent of all infants born in the United States.”
And, despite bipartisan support among voters and even lawmakers (more on that in a minute), a similar program wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s Congress.
How we got WIC
In the 1960s, lawmakers became keenly interested in passing legislation that directly addressed the welfare of children. The charge was lead, in part, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had taught high school earlier in his life. In his remarks upon signing the the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, he explained that he “[knew] what it is to teach children who are listless and tired because they are hungry-and realize the difference a decent meal can make in the lives and attitudes of school children.”
“It can be a heartbreaking and a frustrating experience, if there is nowhere to turn for help when your child is hungry,” he stated. “This was just one more situation that I saw when I was a very young man, and that I have been trying to do something about, and have determined to do something about ever since.”
It was under a Republican, not a Democrat, that nutrition and anti-hunger programs were widely expanded beyond school lunches. In his 1969 address to Congress, President Richard Nixon called it “embarrassing and intolerable” that “hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours.”
Elsewhere in the address, Nixon indicted the private sector and called on food manufacturers to step up—almost unheard of in today’s conservative rhetoric.
Our private food industry has made great advances in food processing and packaging, and has served the great majority of us very well. But these advances have placed great burdens on those who are less well off and less sophisticated in the ways of the modern marketplace. We must therefore work to make the private food market serve these citizens as well, by making nutritious foods widely available in popular forms.
Rather than supply food directly from the government or non-profits, like food banks, Nixon’s plan was to help people in need shop at regular stores and buy regular (albeit prescribed) items, thus bolstering the local economy and ensuring proper nutrition through education and guidelines.
However, because this was a new idea, there had been a few hurdles that needed to be ironed out.
To tackle the logistical issues, Nixon called for an influx of cash and innovation, directing “a substantial portion of the Fiscal Year 1970 budget for this program be used to establish pilot programs that make use of the private food market.”
“Under these programs, needy pregnant women and mothers of infants will be issued vouchers, redeemable at food and drug stores for infant formulas and other highly nutritious special foods. If such a program seems workable, and the administrative problems are resolved, the program will be expanded later on the basis of that experience.”
Following Nixon’s call, in 1972, a Democratic Senator from Minnesota sponsored the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a two-year pilot program designed to supplement school lunches. The program would focus on those whose nutritional needs were not met by school meals: Woman, infants, and children.
As part of the pilot, children under the age of four (later extended to five) could receive the same nutrient-dense foods at home (like eggs, milk, and peanut butter) as their older siblings might at school. Additionally, pregnant and nursing mothers would be able to purchase the items they needed to keep their children—born or otherwise—alive.
By the end of the pilot, in 1974, WIC was operating in almost every states and was clearly a success. On October 7, 1975, the Democratic Congress (under another Republican President, Gerald Ford) passed P.L. 94–105, which determined that the program become a permanent part of the country’s safety net. The amendment reads:
Congress finds that substantial numbers of pregnant women, infants, and young children are at special risk in respect to their physical and mental health by reason of poor or inadequate nutrition or health care, or both. It is, therefore, the purpose of the program authorized by this section to provide supplemental nutritious food as an adjunct to good health during such critical times of growth and development in order to prevent the occurrence of health problems.
Since that time, WIC’s definitions and eligibility requirements have changed some—mostly to contain costs—as have the services which are covered under the program.
Nutrition education and counseling at WIC clinics, breastfeeding support and assistance, and immunization incentives have all been added since the program’s founding. Elligibility was expanded to children up to five years old, and to nonbreastfeeding mothers up to a year after the birth of their last child. Recipients are able to shop at local farmer’s markets and other small businesses, and, by October of 2020, all states have been mandated to move from complicated paper vouchers to easier EBT cards.
However, the bones of the program remain the same: Help people in need cover their staples when they do their grocery shopping. In total, between 8 and 9 million people—at least six million of whom are children or infants—receive services or food from the WIC program annually.
WIC at 42
The benefits of WIC go far beyond the obvious—that children are being born to more well-fed mothers and continue to have access to enough food on a daily baises.
Researchers in 2012 found that WIC was increasing access to healthy foods and reduces food deserts. Additionally, 2015 study from UNC linked a decline in childhood obesity to a change in the WIC guidelines which added fresh produce to the list of foods covered. Demand for WIC-approved items has prompted bodegas and other corner stores to carry more nutrient-dense foods, like produce, nuts, beans, and yogurt, making them more widely available to people whether they’re partaking in the program or not.
The program remains popular among likely voters of all stripes, too, though it doesn’t have the name recognition of many more maligned social programs. In a 2012 survey, the majority of respondents said they viewed WIC favorably, regardless of political affiliation.
Of course, WIC also has its critics. The relative nature of what’s a “healthy” food and the restrictions places on what families can buy can be difficult to follow, particularly for consumers from marginalized communities who may be used to cooking with different ingredients. WIC’s emphasis on dairy as a healthy food and its lack of vegan options are both a holdover from earlier eras (think: the Food Pyramid) and a sign of the control that industries like the dairy lobby and potato farmers still have over lawmaking.
Additionally, WIC’s emphasis on women, mothers, and breastfeeding has the potential to be exclusive; many trans and nonconforming individuals may get pregnant, have children, chestfeed, and need WIC’s services without indentifying as women. The USDA seems to have risen to the challenge, though; a change to their nondiscrimination regulations in 2014 helped strengthened the program’s ability to help everyone in need, regardless of gender identity.
It’s not those critiques which fuel talk of cuts to the program, though. Despite the program’s wide-reaching benefits and considerable popularity, Republicans in Congress have been looking for ways to trim or shift its funding, though they rarely call it out the way they do with other assistance programs.
Instead of rolling it in with other “entitlements” or “welfare” programs—because, unlike “food stamps,” which absolutely do benefit pregnant women and children, WIC’s emphasis on children has made it somewhat precious—cuts to the program are often proposed quietly and in an attempt to appease constituents hoping for lower taxes and debt reduction.
In 2011, for example, House Republicans attempted to cut billions from WIC, stating that proposed funding reductions would only trim from excess money in the coffers; however, when the Center for Budget and Policy ran the numbers, they found that “the use of all contingency funds, as well as use of the carryover funds from fiscal year 2011, to close funding shortfalls — and the funding level would nevertheless result in the estimated participation cutback of 700,000 women and children.”
More cuts were proposed as a kind of bargaining chip in 2014 when the threat of government shutdown loomed.
In 2015, Republicans tried a different approach, instead pitching the idea of shifting SNAP and other benefits (presumably WIC) from Federal programs into “block grants,” which would give states greater control and lead to greater unpredictability. It would also potentially lead to a devaluation of the program over time, just as the Troubled Assets for Needy Families (TANF) program has. Despite its popularity among the GOP, block granting has proven to be an unsuccessful method of providing resources and services to lower-income people.
In spite of multiple attempts to whittle away at the program, WIC funding was largely left intact since 1997, when it was fully-funded to serve all eligible applicants. However, the new administration means all previous bets are off—and it means that any expansions, additions, or improvements are highly improbable.
The future of WIC and programs like it
As Puerto Ricans attempt to survive unconscionable conditions and residents of Houston and Florida fight with FEMA for basic assistance, the mantra of the right continues to be “cut, cut, cut.” Adding new or supplemental programs, particularly those which aid the very poor, has become the sole purview of the Democratic party.
Under President Donald Trump’s budget, for example, WIC would likely “tread water,” seeing noticeable, but not catastrophic, cuts. But the National WIC Association has said that they’re concerned about other, peripheral cuts, and how they might impact recipients.
“Outside of USDA, we are also concerned about the cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and others,” writes NWICA. “The budget blueprint eliminates funding for regional water cleanup efforts, ends grants for ozone pollution cleanup and infrastructure assistance…Cuts to air quality and water quality programs will have implications for the health and well-being of young children, including childhood asthma rates and lead poisoning — think Flint, MI.”
Comparing the anti-poverty approaches of the 115th and the 94th Congress presents two very different approaches to anti-poverty programs: One that looks to whittle away programs in any way possible with little regard for the safety net they create and one that looked to provide missing links to keep the net intact. The idea that any conservative budget must slash and nip and trim in any possible place, that social programs and climate measures and regulations operate independently of each other, is unique and relatively new.
Even small-government Republicans, like Nixon, recognized that people in need could not be helped without spending a little to figure out the most logical way to do it. And, as a result, tens of millions of children and adults have been raised on a program that has endured for at least two, if not three, generations.
Refrigerators that might otherwise have been solely occupied by have been stocked with condiments are instead stocked with eggs, yogurt, produce, and beans, purchased from local retailers and bagged by local courtesy clerks.
Instead of removing people from the employment rolls, the program has them working, functioning as a supplement to the wages that families already bring home. In this way, WIC bucks many of the stereotypes surrounding “welfare,” and illustrates what can be achieved when the government spends a little money at the front-end.
Forty years later, the passage of WIC is an example of the ways that legislation can help millions when permitted to do so.