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Here’s what happens to WIC if there’s a government shutdown

A person walks into Kroger
Monica Pedynkowski
/
VPM News
A shopper enters a Kroger grocery store in Staunton on Sept. 26. If a government shutdown begins over the weekend, there could be disruptions to the country’s social safety net, which was already reduced this year by the COVID-19 public health emergency’s end.

The program for pregnant people, breastfeeding parents and young children serves more than 100,000 Virginians.

The U.S. government will shut down early Sunday morning if Congress can’t reach an agreement on federal spending for fiscal year 2024.

In practice, a shutdown would mean many federal employees — like half of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one-fifth of the Food and Drug Administration — would be sent home. Others, like air traffic controllers and police, would continue to work but won’t be paid until after an agreement is reached.

It would also mean disruptions to the country’s social safety net, which was already reduced this year by the COVID-19 public health emergency’s end.

  • If the shutdown lasts weeks, the SNAP food benefits program might run out of money as it almost did during the 2018-19 shutdown.
  • Head Start programs that provide educational day care to 3- and 4-year-olds would be shuttered. They closed 2 days into the 2013 shutdown.
  • Free and reduced-price lunch programs may also have to stop, according to Politico.
  • And the nearly 7 million parents and young children on the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program would lose benefits within days of the Oct. 1 deadline. Prospective applicants would also face a waitlist for services.

The cuts to WIC in particular have drawn national attention.

What WIC does

WIC serves nearly half of the babies born in the U.S., according to the federal Department of Agriculture. The program is for low-income pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding parents and children up to age 5. It was created in the 1970s and provides nutrition information, breastfeeding support and some food staples — like bread, cheese and infant formula. Additionally, participants receive vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables.

That last program was expanded by the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, roughly doubling the benefit for children to $24 per month and more than tripling the amount for pregnant and postpartum parents to $43, with slightly more going to breastfeeding parents.

While WIC’s expansion was a part of COVID-19 relief legislation, it shouldn’t be seen as being tied to virus, according to Katie Bergh, of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“That was based on a recommendation that the National Academies made back in 2017,” Bergh said. She added that the recommendation was that “the WIC food package should provide half of the recommended amount for daily fruits and vegetables.”

WIC currently uses a hybrid model that allows participants to either visit offices or meet program staff through telehealth after an initial in-person certification.

Nationally, the number of people using WIC has grown after years of decline. The number of beneficiaries increased 7.5% between May 2020 and May 2023, according to The Washington Post.

In Virginia, the program serves 127,000 people, according to a statement the state Department of Health provided to VPM News and WMRA.

Cuts likely coming to WIC

While a government shutdown would temporarily shutter WIC, the threat to the program goes further.

Budget plans by both the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Representatives include cuts to the nutrition benefit program.

The White House wants the program to be fully funded. And in late August, it asked Congress to include enough money in any funding proposal that WIC could maintain its current levels of service. That request is for more than WIC’s fiscal 2024 budget called for in March, because more people enrolled in the program than projected as food costs continued to rise.

The House has opposed that, advocating for cuts to WIC and other parts of the country’s safety net.

House Republicans like Maryland Rep. Andy Harris have said lawmakers need to “right-size programs, especially since the pandemic is over,” referring to the idea that WIC was expanded because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harris chairs the top subcommittee overseeing USDA spending, which includes WIC.

The House Republicans proposal would cut the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program back for about 5.3 million people that WIC currently serves, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that advocates for WIC funding. The proposal would also mean between 650,000 and 750,000 eligible people would be waitlisted.

The Democrat-controlled Senate has put forward a bipartisan continuing resolution that would fund the government through mid-November, according to The Associated Press. The proposal would maintain current funding levels for WIC, meaning the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program would be maintained, and states wouldn’t be forced to put eligible WIC applicants on a waitlist.

An alternate Senate plan would fund the government throughout the rest of the 2024 fiscal year, but would force states to waitlist an estimated 600,000 eligible applicants due to the program’s growth and increasing food costs.

The impact of potential cuts in Virginia

Regardless of the outcome, WIC cuts of any size would change the way some Virginia families live.

Jazmin Hightower is a mother of three in Harrisonburg and one of the 127,000 Virginians who the program currently serves. She works as a school bus driver and after-school program instructor. Her husband receives military benefits.

Squeezed by family care obligations, two jobs and the rising costs of food and day care, Hightower applied for SNAP food benefits when her youngest son was born in 2021.

She was rejected, but the family did qualify for WIC, which has a higher income threshold. They use the program to help offset the increasing cost of healthy foods.

“For our family, the biggest thing is the fruits and veggies. Because those are something that the inflation is really hitting hard,” said Hightower. “Being able to provide those fruits and veggies … is really, really beneficial for us.”

But if her family loses those benefits, Hightower said they will have to cut fresh food out of their diets and return to canned produce.

The potential loss of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable benefit could undermine the health rewards research has shown WIC provides, according to Bergh.

“Research shows that participating in WIC is associated with numerous positive impacts for health and development,” she said. “Things like healthier births, lower infant mortality, more nutritious diets, better connection to preventative health care, improved educational attainment for kids who participate.”

Compounding the impacts, the U.S. social safety net is being cut backafter it was built up through the CARES Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Earlier this month, the Census Bureau said the end of the expanded Child Tax Credit played a major role in poverty rising between 2021 and 2022 by the most it has in about 50 years.

Lawmakers also ended expanded SNAP benefits earlier this year, a move that impacted about 500,000 Virginians.

Medicaid is also in the process of cutting enrollment, with about 140,000 Virginians losing coverage so far, as the program returns to yearly eligibility checks across the county.

Other programs, like eviction pauses and the Pandemic EBT food benefit some children received, have also been ended.

“I think we're going to continue to see policy decisions play out in the poverty data,” said Bergh.

According to Bergh, cuts to programs like SNAP may have driven people to WIC at a time when it was one of the few benefits not experiencing cuts.

“Families who lost their pandemic-related emergency allotments for SNAP benefits … relied more on WIC and stayed connected to WIC longer, because they needed that extra help bridging the gap in their grocery budget,” she said.

Despite uncertainty, WIC continues

The Virginia Department of Health told VPM News and WMRA it would work to decrease the impacts of a potential federal budget cut to WIC.

“The VA WIC Program will work with our federal partner to ensure that there will be measures in place that will mitigate any reduction in funding,” wrote department spokesperson Cheryle Rodriguez. “In the past, we have had to decrease the number of team members, which impacted our ability to provide services and issue benefits.”

Cordia Frazier runs WIC for the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg and its four surrounding counties. She remains focused on the program’s future and improving the services her office provides.

“I definitely see WIC expanding over the next few years with what we provide and how much we can provide to our participants,” she said.

In particular, Frazier said she hoped to meet families' needs through partnerships with area health providers — or getting out to rural areas to serve people who don’t have access to transportation.

Virginia WIC remains operational and is accepting new applicants. Eligibility guidelines are posted online. Applications can be made by calling or visiting a local WIC office or online.

Henry Brannan covers rural health care in the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville area for VPM News and WMRA. The position is in partnership with Report for America.