For the first time in decades, many states could begin turning away eligible applicants from an assistance program that provides low-income women and their children critical access to food.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a federally funded program known as WIC, has traditionally received bipartisan support from lawmakers. But the broader push for spending cuts among some House Republicans has threatened the program’s ability to provide benefits to every eligible person who applies.
The Agriculture Department warned last month that the program could see a $1 billion shortfall and that millions of eligible pregnant and postpartum women and their children could risk missing out on nutrition assistance this year if Congress does not increase funding.
Some House Republicans have pushed for maintaining funding at roughly similar levels as the past few years, despite a recent surge in participants. The effort is part of a larger push among conservatives to rein in federal spending in an attempt to address the nation’s rising debt load.
Lawmakers have been divided for months over federal spending levels, raising the risk of a partial government shutdown this month. Congress passed a stopgap measure in November, which allows states to continue normal operations for the WIC program. But lawmakers are running up against a Jan. 19 deadline to extend funding.
Senate and House leaders said on Sunday that they had reached an overarching agreement on total government spending. That deal has met resistance from hard-right lawmakers, though, and it is unclear whether Congress will increase funding for WIC.
WIC is not an entitlement program, and Congress does not have to provide funds to allow every eligible individual to participate. But Congress has committed to fully funding the program for the past 25 years, meaning that states have largely been able to provide benefits to every eligible applicant.
State and federal officials say that program costs have increased because of a spike in participation and higher food costs. Benefits were also expanded during the pandemic to allow families to buy more fruits and vegetables, which some Republicans have called for scaling back.
Federal officials were not aware of any states turning to waiting lists yet, a senior Agriculture Department official said. Last month, department officials said the impact of a funding shortfall would likely be felt in the final months of the fiscal year as funds dwindled, and that some states might have to suspend benefits as a last resort.
Participation in WIC grew substantially last year, which could have resulted from the end of some pandemic-era assistance, such as expanded food stamp benefits, and food inflation pinching household budgets, the department official said. Federal and state officials have also worked to increase outreach and remote services in recent years to make it easier to access the program.
In the 2023 fiscal year, average monthly participation in the program grew 5 percent from the year before, with about 6.6 million total participants, according to Agriculture Department data. The year before marked the first time in more than a decade that total participation increased.
Roughly half of all infants born in the United States receive WIC benefits. Research has shown that children who participate eat more nutritious foods and are more likely to have better long-term health. Spending on the program has also been associated with fewer infant deaths and premature births, along with savings in health care costs after birth, according to studies.
If lawmakers do not extend funding by Jan. 19, states would have enough money to provide WIC benefits through the end of March, according to the Agriculture Department official.
Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said it was unclear whether much progress could be made by Jan. 19, but lawmakers could pass a short-term extension of current funding levels until next month, giving them more time to work out an agreement. Still, she said that increasing funding for WIC was “nonnegotiable.”
“It’s my hope that we would avoid listening to those who are the most extreme House Republicans and really honor what has been a longstanding commitment to give WIC the funding that it needs,” Ms. DeLauro said.
The impasse has raised concerns among some state agencies, which are responsible for administering the program’s funding. Kate Franken, Minnesota’s WIC director, said that if Congress did not increase funding, the state would likely have to start putting applicants on waiting lists in the coming months, which officials have not done in about three decades.
Pregnant women, infants and children with higher nutritional risk would be prioritized, with postpartum women and children over the age of 1 being the first to be placed on waiting lists, she said.
Program costs have increased because of higher participation and food costs, Ms. Franken said. Officials saw a bump in participation after the end of some pandemic-era benefits and after they started offering more remote services, including an online application.
Ms. Franken said that about 32,000 eligible people in the state could be turned away if there is a funding shortfall, citing an analysis last month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
Tiare Sanna, the director of Oregon’s WIC program, said the debate over the program’s funding was coming at an especially poor time, given the growth in participation and high food costs, and she worried that lawmakers would not provide enough funds.
“I’m not terribly optimistic,” Ms. Sanna said.
Katie Bergh, a co-author of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis, said it was encouraging to see participation grow because WIC has typically had lower uptake, but inadequate funding could lead to states pulling back on outreach. Ms. Bergh and her co-authors also argued that families could be discouraged from applying for years to come if states turned away applicants. In 2021, only 51 percent of eligible people participated, according to Agriculture Department data.
Kelly Horton, the chief program officer at the Food Research and Action Center, said she expected participation in the program to continue to grow this year, given the rising numbers of people in poverty and individuals struggling with food insecurity.
In 2022, 12.8 percent of households, or 17 million households, were food insecure at some point during the year, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all of their members, according to the Agriculture Department. That was up from 10.2 percent the year before.
“This program is just vital,” Ms. Horton said. “When you don’t have it, it means somebody is going hungry.”
For some families, WIC has helped them deal with costly expenses. Ebony Jeje, 46, a community support worker and mother of three in Washington, D.C., said her youngest son has been receiving assistance through the program for about two years, which has helped her save more than $100 on her monthly grocery costs.
“That’s more money that can go toward my other bills,” she said.
The benefits also allow her to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables for her family instead of processed foods like frozen chicken nuggets, she said. And the program initially helped her afford a type of milk that her son needed after he was born prematurely.
Georgia Machell, the interim president of the National WIC Association, said that the growth in participation could make this a “really positive moment” but that it was hard to predict what lawmakers would do.
“It is frankly ridiculous that we may be entering a situation where there isn’t sufficient funding,” Ms. Machell said.