WIC Enrollment Down
Economic hardship means families have to make tough choices among basic needs. Rent, mortgage, food, heat, health care — when what’s coming in is far less than what needs to go out, parents are inevitably stressed. Both the economic needs and the impact on parents are associated with health problems for children — economic struggles, in particular, increase the risk that young children will suffer from delayed development and nutritional deficiencies, and living with a depressed caregiver additionally undermines their well-being.
The Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides nutrient-rich foods and nutritional counseling to those who need it. Ideally, participation in the WIC program alleviates some of the economic and the emotional stress on parents. That, theorized a group of researchers from a variety of institutions (including the University of Maryland and Boston University Schools of Medicine), should mean healthier parents and healthier children — and according to their research, reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, it did.
Working with the Children’s Health Watch to interview and examine data from over 26,000 caregiver-child pairs, Dr. Maureen Black and her colleagues found that parents in the WIC program were less likely to report depressive symptoms, even though the WIC program is not intended to address their mental health, and their children were more likely to meet the “well child” criteria set by the researchers.
Children of WIC participants were also less likely to be overweight, suggesting that the food and counseling provided by WIC may be helping those families avoid less healthy (but usually cheap) alternatives. An older study found that preschoolers enrolled in the WIC program snacked less, and consumed less added sugar.
But enrollment in WIC programs is down nationwide, while food stamp use is at a record high. Only a part of that decrease can be attributed to a declining birth rate, says Pamela Prah, writing for the Pew Center on the States and Governing magazine. Women’s advocates, she found, suspect that some women choose food stamps over WIC programs because the barriers to entry are higher for WIC: participants are required to see a health professional to discuss nutrition, and in most states must re-enroll every six months once the child is more than a year old.
Food stamp benefits are more generous in many states, and are provided on an unobtrusive debit-like card. States have also been more active in reaching out to families in need of food stamps than to new mothers who might be helped by WIC, possibly because food stamps and WIC are financed differently: WIC is a discretionary grant program for which the federal government provides a limited budget, while food stamps are provided to any eligible recipient who signs up, regardless of cost.
This raises questions about how food stamps and WIC do, can and should interact, and whether WIC programs offer benefits (even those that also serve as hurdles) that could benefit food stamp recipients. Do we want eligible women to reject WIC for food stamps — and if we don’t, how should both programs change?