A recipient of the nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, loads food into her car after leaving a distribution center in Mississippi. States are worried WIC funds will dry up. (AP)
By early next week, millions of women could learn whether benefits to help feed them and their young children will end on Nov. 1.
As the government shutdown continues, states face the possibility that they'll run out of funds for the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC. Federal guidelines typically require states to give 15 days' notice to those enrolled in the program before benefits expire, and Nov. 1 could be the day funding dries up nationwide.
“This has created tremendous panic amongst WIC participants,” said the Rev. Douglas A. G. Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, an advocacy group. “It's a whacked situation; you can quote me on that.”
Federal funds were set to go to states for WIC benefits in the new fiscal year which started Oct. 1. But they were not distributed because of the budget stalemate in Washington. In the last fiscal year, Washington paid states and the District of Columbia nearly $6.5 billion in WIC grants, on average about $127 million per state.
A program fully funded by the federal government, WIC gets food and nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant and post-partum women, along with infants and children as old as 5 years of age. There's a set list of the foods that can be bought through WIC, typically through benefit checks to participants.
Because of the government shutdown, those benefits are in jeopardy nationwide.
More than 8.5 million women and children were enrolled in the program as of June 2013, the most recent available federal data. More than 1.4 million of those receiving benefits lived in California and nearly 1 million were in Texas. Ten states had a quarter-million or more residents receiving WIC benefits in June.
To qualify, women or children must fall under 185 percent of the federal poverty level, generally $43,568 for a family of four.
Without new funding because of the shutdown, states have relied on dollars left over from last fiscal year and $125 million in contingency funds from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service to continue benefits in the past two weeks.
That was a temporary fix, however, and now many states may be forced to end benefits with no federal funding on the horizon.
North Carolina, which has the eighth largest WIC population in the country, is one example. The state sent notices to nearly 264,000 women, infants and children that benefits would be suspended because of a lack of funds. The state reversed course late Thursday and said it had enough money to pay WIC through October--but not for November.
Other states have considered not accepting new applications, citing the uncertainty, even as benefits continue for those already enrolled, paid through the leftover funds and federal contingency dollars. Some states announced office closings and other measures in the days after the shutdown began, only to reverse those moves after emergency supplemental funding became available from U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even where officials haven't sounded the alarm as loudly, concern is palpable – for state officials and beneficiaries. Officials in Kansas on Wednesday announced they'd withhold benefit checks for November and December, citing the uncertainty over future funding. In Utah, state officials closed offices and cancelled appointments for clients before the emergency funds became available. Louisiana temporarily stopped accepting new applications, but has since said newly eligible residents will be able to apply through October.
Greenaway said state WIC administrators nationwide would join in a conference call Thursday to discuss the issue.
“For the most part, programs are saying we are open for business until further notice,” Greenaway said.
Adding to the uncertainty is a recent move in the U.S. House to approve funding specifically for WIC, citing the shutdown's effect on those who rely on it. Many Republicans backed it, but Democrats – typically defenders of safety net programs like WIC – have balked at any piecemeal approach to the budget showdown.
WIC funding was earlier dented the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Advocates estimated those reductions would end benefits for 600,000.
Unlike food stamps, a program that ballooned during the recession, WIC participation did not spike during those years. It had actually declined about 400,000 through the first half of fiscal year 2013, according to federal data. Enrollment in WIC has decreased as the U.S. birth rate has dropped, and standard assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, became more available.
But food stamp benefits will be reduced on Nov. 1 as well, when additional money from the stimulus bill lapses. That could force more Americans to look for help from WIC, Greenaway said.
“It's a train wreck waiting to happen,” he said.