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.

Click here to view this working paper as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.

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.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

image Dad and the diploma: The difference fathers make for college graduation
image A better way to finance that college degree
image Fracking for bigger budgets
image Earth Day: Hail fossil fuels, energy of the future
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.