Combating Childhood Malnutrition for Low-Income Families in America's Public Schools

To expand participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the federal government should simplify its eligibility and recertification processes, as well as change the funding model to protect the program against budget cuts. 

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federally funded and state-administered program that provides supplemental food, nutrition education, and referral services to low-income families. WIC plays a key role in combating childhood malnutrition by serving 9,177,000 participants who are at or below 185 percent of the poverty line. In addition to receiving the Office of Management and Budget’s highest scores for program efficiency, each dollar invested in WIC reduces Medicaid costs between $1.77 and $3.13 over the first 60 days of an infant’s life.

Analysis 

Despite the benefits of this program, only 59 percent of the eligible population participates, and those rates have remained stagnant over the past decade, despite rising poverty numbers. Because of the individual and collective benefits of early childhood nutrition, the federal government should take a proactive stance in expanding WIC participation. Congress should take three steps to expand participation and protect WIC’s funding. First, it should remove the requirement that individuals demonstrate “nutritional deficiencies” in addition to qualifying for the program based on income. 

Second, Congress should change WIC’s recertification requirements so that applicants only undergo a review of eligibility once a year, as opposed to every six months. A study of WIC participants found that expanding the length of issuance of benefits is one of the only variables that significantly lowers participant retention. Concerns about the cost of expanding the recertification period from six months to one year should be assuaged by studies that demonstrate that this change is budget neutral. Third, since WIC’s status as a discretionarily funded program has placed it at significant risk in ongoing budget debates, Congress should begin funding WIC as an entitlement program to provide a greater level of fiscal protection. 

Next Steps

Since WIC is administered under the Department of Agriculture, when Congress considers the 2012 Farm Bill it should use that opportunity to make changes to the program’s eligibility, recertification, and funding models. Removing the nutritional deficiency requirement and changing the recertification periods are changes the can be introduced by any member of Congress and passed by a simple majority vote of both chambers. Changing WIC’s funding model is more involved due to the Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) rules; however, since WIC is already fully funded as a discretionary program, the House and Senate Rules Committees should waive the requirement that it be treated as new spending.