House Republicans are once again targeting food aid—in this case, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC—and Senate Democrats are entering the fight a few steps behind. It’s totally predictable on the part of House Republicans: They want to keep hundreds of thousands of toddlers and new moms out of the program, and to cut funds for fruits and vegetables for millions more people who are getting WIC. That’s Republican policy.
The situation in the Senate is more complicated: The bipartisan Senate appropriations bill that includes WIC funds the program to the level President Joe Biden requested earlier in the year but costs have risen more than projected, so the funding would fall short, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. The House plan would turn away 650,000 to 750,000 eligible people—and again, those people are mostly toddlers, preschoolers, and breastfeeding women. It would also cut a fruits and vegetables benefit put into place as part of the American Rescue Plan and continued since with bipartisan support.
Senate Democrats, in agreement with the Biden budget plan, are allocating $6.3 billion to WIC for the 2024 fiscal year, a $615 million increase over 2023. The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously moved that forward in June. The problem is that due to enrollment growing more than predicted, CBPP now estimates that the true need is $7.2 to $7.3 billion, so the Senate plan would also turn hundreds of thousands of people away from WIC. It would, however, leave benefits intact for those already in the program. House Republicans, on the other hand, want to cut WIC to $185 million below its 2023 level.
The fruit and vegetable benefit that House Republicans want to cut was added with the recommendation of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It “increased to $24 per month for children, $43 per month for pregnant and postpartum individuals, and $47 per month for fully and partially breastfeeding individuals. This more than doubles the usual benefit of $9 for fruits and vegetables per month for children and more than triples the usual $11 per month for pregnant and postpartum individuals,” the Food Research & Action Center reported. A 2022 report from the National WIC Association and the Nutrition Policy Institute found that the increase worked, raising fruit and vegetable consumption among WIC families.
This is a program for some of the most physically vulnerable people in the country—babies, toddlers, pregnant and postpartum women—and it has long-term benefits for the families that get it. Those benefits start at birth, with babies born to WIC participants healthier and more likely to survive infancy than babies born to otherwise similar mothers who didn’t get WIC, according to a CBPP review of the research. Children on WIC are more likely to be immunized and to receive preventive medical care than other low-income kids. And get this: “Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age 2 than similar children whose mothers did not participate, and they later performed better on reading assessments while in school.”
So here’s a program that literally saves babies’ lives and improves reading assessments—and House Republicans want to cut it. It gets better: These proposed cuts are happening directly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Republican-controlled states rushed to ban abortion, a policy that directly increases the number of babies born to parents who are struggling and don’t feel able to support another child. According to a 2014 study by the Guttmacher Institute, 49% of abortion patients were below the federal poverty level and another 26% had incomes less than double the poverty level.
“Some of the economic consequences of being denied an abortion include a higher chance of being in poverty even four years after; a lower likelihood of being employed full time; and an increase in unpaid debts and financial distress lasting years,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Asha Banerjee wrote when the draft Supreme Court opinion leaked. Programs like WIC become far more important in states where abortion is banned.
Republicans brag about “creating a culture of life,” but the patterns aren’t hard to see: Maternal and neonatal death rates are higher in states that have banned abortion, and they’re less likely to have expanded Medicaid. WIC is a national program, but the party responsible for state-level abortion bans is the one trying to cut it.
Biden and Senate Democrats didn't lowball their WIC funding number on purpose. Enrollment has gone up faster than expected, leading to what was intended to be enough funding becoming inadequate. They were already in for a fight with House Republicans who wanted to reduce funding. Now Democrats need to fight to raise it enough to cover everyone who needs WIC.