The Expansion of WIC Eligibility and Enrollment
Good Intentions, Uncontrolled Local Discretion, and Compliant Federal Officials

I. Summary and Recommendations

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is supposed to provide "free supplemental food packages, nutrition counseling, and health and social service referrals" to low-income mothers and young children who are at nutritional risk. Its monthly food packages contain such basics as milk (or cheese), adult cereal, fruit juice, eggs, and peanut butter (or an equivalent legume product), worth on average about $40 per person/per month for women and children. Infants also receive iron-fortified formula which brings the value of their package to about $110 per month. The nutritional counseling is normally about one fifteen-minute session every three months.

In 2007, WIC was a $7.3 billion program (about $5.4 billion in federal funding and about $1.9 billion through rebates from infant formula manufacturers) that served about 8.3 million people (including 2.2 million infants, 4.0 million children ages one through four, and 2.1 million pregnant and postpartum mothers). Program expenditures, however, have risen since then. The federal FY 2009 WIC appropriation, alone, is $6.66 billion. (Unless otherwise indicated, alldollar amounts in this paper are in 2007 dollars.)

Officially, eligibility for WIC is based on income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line or the receipt of Medicaid, cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or food stamps. For the period of July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009 (hereinafter, "2008/2009"), that was $32,560 for a family of three, and $45,880 for a family of five. This relatively high threshold is presumably meant to be mitigated by the additional requirement that applicants also be found to be at "nutritional risk." Over the years, however, the criteria for determining nutritional risk have been watered down and now just about all WIC applicants are deemed at risk.

Given WIC's purpose, benefit package, and putative eligibility, one would assume that its benefits would be targeted to the most needful Americans. But, as this report documents, various formal and informal changes have liberalized these criteria so that, in 2006, about half of all American infants were on WIC, and about 41 percent of postpartum and breastfeeding mothers received WIC benefits. According to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS), in 2006, about 18 percent of WIC recipients lived in families with annual incomes above WIC's putative income cap of 185 percent of poverty, and about 5 percent in families with annual incomes over 300 percent of poverty--about 1.5 million and 400,000 people, respectively.

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Douglas J. Besharov is the Joseph J. and Violet Jacobs Scholar in Social Welfare Studies at AEI. Douglas M. Call is a research associate at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

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