Analysis Law and Policy

The Other “Cliff:” Cuts to WIC Could Cripple Programs Serving Those Already Clinging to the Edge

Sheila Bapat

In the first eight days of fiscal cliff negotiations, both sides almost seem to have resigned themselves to stalemate. But a possible austerity crisis could cripple already feeble programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The first eight days of Congress and the President’s fiscal cliff negotiations have not exactly inspired confidence. As Rewire pointed out last week, the fiscal cliff is a concocted concept, or at best an exaggerated concept, referring to the effective end-date of put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. This law requires an end to Bush era tax cuts, Obama’s payroll tax cuts, and, extended unemployment benefits. More significantly, the law also requires sequestration — or automatic, across-the-board cuts to a number of federal programs.

But even if the fiscal cliff is a concocted or exaggerated concept, its possible impact on social programs is very real. To avoid these automatic tax increases and sequestration, Obama and Congress are working on an agreement about what types of tax reform and spending cuts should take effect — all in order to raise revenue and begin to aggressively manage the national debt. Obama’s initial and fairly specific offer of tax reform and proposed spending cuts was met with a vague counter offer from Republicans. Led by House Majority Leader John Boehner, Republicans said they’d be willing to put “$800 billion in pro-growth tax reform” that “closes special interest loopholes and lowers rates.” There weren’t enough  specifics to their plan, as Josh Barro of the Bloomberg Ticker noted earlier this week, though House Republicans do seek to increase the eligibility age for Medicare and Medicaid and to avoid letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

As of today there seem to be glimmers of GOP concessions on tax increases for the wealthy, but up until now both sides almost seem to have resigned themselves to stalemate: on Monday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said point blank on Monday that “we’re “going over the cliff.”

Does Sen. Graham know that his state’s schools could lose millions in federal funds if no agreement is reached? Does Boehner know that his state, Ohio, risks losing tens of thousands of jobs if an agreement is not reached? They might know but so far, their focus is not on programs or people who rely on them. It’s on ideology.

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Among the most critical programs that are vulnerable to sequestration is one that has served millions of women and young children for nearly 40 years: the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Created in 1972 as part of the federal Food and Nutrition Service, WIC’s primary service is offering high-nutrition food choices for poor and low-income families to supplement their diets. WIC services also include assistance with baby formula, nutrition education programs, and in some states, increased access to health care for women and children at risk of poor health. Recent changes to WIC have also focused on improving WIC’s electronic benefit services (EBT), so that more WIC participants can purchase healthy food from a broader range of vendors.

The program currently serves nine million mothers, young children, and pregnant women throughout the country. Douglas Greenaway, President and CEO of the National WIC Association, told Rewire via email that if no agreement is reached and no resolution made regarding cuts immediately in the new year, 735,000 national WIC participants would be cut from their respective state programs. State and local agencies that serve WIC recipients have already reported that they are having a hard time meeting all recipients’ needs, and that wait lists for services are getting longer and longer.

Cuts to WIC would have the biggest impact in California, which serves millions of women and children per year. Sequestration could result in cutting 120,300 women and young children from the WIC program.

Texas comes in second place, with more than 80,000 WIC participants risking losing services. Dave Michaels of the Dallas News pointed out:

“Texas budgeted $803 million for the program in 2012, with about $572 million coming from the federal government….Infant-formula makers rebated about $207 million back to the state. The state itself contributed nothing from general-fund revenue (emphasis added).”

In addition, sequestration could actually cut eight percent of Texas’s entire state revenue (apart from sequestration, about one third of Texas’s state budget comes from federal sources). 

The typical WIC-eligible woman or child lives in a household that earns no more than 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Unlike many members of Congress, WIC recipients  are far from well off, and they rely on WIC services to ensure the health and well being of young children and their mothers.

California WIC officials told Rewire via email that they “remain optimistic that an agreement will be reached.” It’s not easy to be optimistic based on the past eight days. Whatever agreement is ultimately reached, one can only hope that Congress and the President will both agree that an austerity crisis is not something they should resign themselves to.

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