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Food benefits for low income families at risk in a government shutdown


Food benefits for low income families at risk in a government shutdown

Sep 25, 2023 | 8:02 pm ET
By Ariana Figueroa
Food benefits for low income families at risk in a government shutdown
Fall peppers and chili at farmers market in Washington, D.C., that accepts Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program benefits coupons. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

As Congress barrels toward a partial government shutdown, the White House Monday warned that a program that helps millions of low income families afford healthy food could see substantial cuts.

The White House released a state-by-state breakdown, estimating that nearly 7 million people who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC, could be at risk of losing funds to purchase select food and receive vouchers for vegetables and fruit.

The program provides financial support for those who are low income and pregnant or nursing, as well as for children up to 5 years old.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Monday White House briefing that WIC recipients could feel the impact of the shutdown within days.

“Millions of those moms, (babies) and young children would see a lack of nutrition assistance,” he said.

Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor, said some states have leftover WIC benefits and “could extend (WIC) for a week or so.”

“The vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that’s provided would not be available,” he said.

In Maryland, about 123,000 WIC recipients could lose their benefits, according to the White House estimate: 28,417 women, 66,963 children, and 27,721 infants.

Additionally, new eligible participants could face a backlog.

“Without the urgent investment of additional funds, state WIC offices could soon be forced to consider waiting lists for prospective participants — a drastic step not seen in nearly 30 years,” Kate Franken, board chair of the National WIC Association, which is the non-profit advocacy arm of WIC, said in a statement.

The impending shutdown comes after President Biden made a deal with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling. That deal set maximum spending levels for the next fiscal year.

However, only one of the 12 appropriations bills has been passed by the House, and a handful of far-right Republicans are pushing for steeper cuts, even if it means a partial government shutdown.

“House Republicans have turned their backs on the bipartisan budget deal that a large majority of them voted for just a few months ago and proposed a continuing resolution (CR) that makes devastating cuts to programs that millions of hardworking Americans count on,” the White House said in a news release.

A continuing resolution, or CR, is regularly used to keep the government funded for weeks or a couple of months while the House and Senate finish work on the 12 annual spending bills.

Without a CR by Saturday, the end of the fiscal year, a partial shutdown will occur and programs that have discretionary funding, like WIC, will lapse.

Funding for WIC is not mandatory spending, meaning the program won’t be automatically funded regardless of a government shutdown. It’s funded through the Agriculture appropriations bill, which has not been passed by Congress.

The White House criticized the Agriculture appropriations bill the House passed out of its committee that did not include the supplemental funding the Biden administration requested.

“Without the Administration’s funding request, states could soon be forced to institute waiting lists for WIC, causing mothers and children to lose access to the vital nutrition assistance,” the White House said.

WIC funding is distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to states through a formula. The share of eligible people who participate in WIC varies between states and can depend on a number of factors.