The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) started as a two-year pilot program in 1972 and was made permanent in 1975. As Peter H. Rossi explained in Feeding the Poor: Assessing Federal Food Aid, “The main rationale for the WIC program is that significant numbers of poor pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children have nutritional deficiencies that endanger the proper development of fetuses, infants, or children, leading to conditions such as prematurity, neonate mortality, low birth weight, slow development, and anemia.”
In 2014, WIC was an $8 billion program (about $6.2 billion in federal funding and about $1.8 billion through rebates from infant formula manufacturers), which served about 8.2 million people, including 2 million infants, 4.3 million children ages one through four, and 2 million pregnant and postpartum mothers. Although WIC is a program of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), most of its grantees are state health departments. Those state agencies, in turn, fund WIC services through local health-related agencies, such as health departments, hospitals, public health clinics, and community health centers.
Given WIC’s purpose, benefits package, and putative eligibility rules, one would assume that its benefits would be targeted to the most needful Americans. But various formal and informal changes have liberalized eligibility criteria so that, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), in 2014, about 24 percent of WIC recipients lived in families with annual incomes above WIC’s putative income cap of 185 percent of poverty, and about 8 percent in families with annual incomes at or above 300 percent of poverty. In 2014, about 49 percent of all American infants were on WIC, and about 39 percent of postpartum and breastfeeding mothers received WIC benefits.
We believe that the expenditures for these expansions in enrollment could have been much more effectively used to improve or intensify services for generally needier families. Aggravating the situation, WIC’s rigid spending rules effectively prevent local programs from spending more than about 30 minutes with clients for nutrition education every six months and preclude enriching food packages with such items as iron supplements. (Author introduction)