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Food Program for Low-Income Families Faces Waiting Lists, Lower Benefits

WIC needs congressional action to avoid funding shortfalls.

By Lauren Kallins  |  February 13, 2024

Unless Congress acts, the Agriculture Department estimates that the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children will run out of funds sometime in August.

The program, known as WIC, has traditionally received bipartisan support and serves over 6 million low-income pregnant and nursing women, as well as children up to age 5. But unexpected enrollment growth and increased costs might mean state waiting lists and/or lower benefits affecting 2 million people by September.

“As inflation continues to have a major impact on the prices of essentials for families, we have seen increased participation in the program and an increased cost of the products that are covered by these benefits,” says Wisconsin Sen. Joan Ballweg, co-chair of NCSL’s Children, Families and Human Services Committee. “The anticipated shortfall in federal funding for this program must be addressed. Wisconsin currently has about 90,000 individuals enrolled in the WIC program. It’s vital these federal funds are replenished for the security and stability of Wisconsin families.”

WIC Facing $1 Billion Shortfall

WIC serves an estimated 39% of all infants in the United States and has been shown to help reduce infant deaths and premature births. The program’s current budget crisis is due to a number of factors, including an increase in costs after Congress expanded cash vouchers for fruits and vegetables in 2021—a change based on a congressionally mandated report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2017. Modernization, including the use of telehealth, has boosted participation in the program; an additional 400,000 people enrolled in WIC in 2023—far exceeding projections. Additionally, rising food inflation—30% over the past five years—has also contributed to the budget shortfall.

Each of the continuing resolutions passed by Congress to keep the federal government running have allowed the program to continue operating at 2023 funding levels and with permission to spend at a faster rate to maintain benefits and participation. The USDA has estimated that an increase of $1 billion is needed for the rest of fiscal year 2024 to avoid running out of funds in August. Without increased funding, states may need to impose waiting lists, scale back benefits or suspend benefits altogether.

Oregon Rep. Lisa Reynolds, Ballweg’s committee co-chair, underscored the serious implications of a budget shortfall on children and called for the program to be fully funded.

“As a pediatrician and a policymaker, I know well the importance of making sure that our babies and toddlers (and their parents) are well fed with nutritious food,” she says. “We know that if children are hungry, it interferes with their learning, it dampens their mood, and it can stunt their growth. It is unconscionable for our rich country to allow our youngest to go hungry.”

NCSL sent a joint letter to Congress in September urging full funding of the program.

Read the USDA’s news release about funding the WIC program.

Lauren Kallins is a senior legislative director in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Division.

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