By the Rev. Douglas A. Greenaway, President & CEO
When Congress failed to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) at the end of September, keeping the federal government running into fiscal year 2014, funding for America’s highly regarded public health nutrition program – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) – ceased.
Only a combination of 1) unspent year-end food dollars (the result of prudent food cost management by State WIC Directors), 2) $125 million in contingency funds (a sneeze when contrasted with WIC’s nearly $7 billion annual investment in mothers and young children), and 3) infant formula rebates (the result of State WIC competitively bid contracts) has allowed USDA and State WIC agencies to keep WIC open for business through the end of October. Come November, if there is no budget agreement and the government remains shuttered, nearly 9 million already vulnerable low-income mothers and young children risk losing essential nutrition and healthcare services.
This will have dire health consequences for the mothers and young children participating in WIC and huge financial consequences for the nation. WIC improves the likelihood of a healthy pregnancy and a healthy birth. Pregnancy complications and unhealthy birth outcomes, like pre-term and low-birth weight births, are costly. Preterm births cost the U.S. over $26 billion per year, and the average first year medical costs for a premature/low birth-weight baby are $49,033 compared to $4,551 for a baby without complications. WIC improves healthy eating behaviors and breastfeeding rates in a population at risk for nutrition-related illness. If 90% of U.S. mothers exclusively breastfed their infants to 6 months, the U.S. would save $13 billion per year in medical expenses and prevent over 900 deaths annually.
The current uncertainty is not the first affront to WIC funding in recent months. The House cut $733 million from the WIC program in their fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill, which threatened to remove up to 750,000 participants from the program. The House Budget Resolution for fiscal year 2014 cut domestic discretionary programs (like WIC) so significantly that if all programs received an equivalent percentage cut (20%), WIC would have to remove approximately 1.7 million mothers and young children from the program. While neither became the blueprint for WIC, they remain evidence of targeted threats to the program.
Last year’s sequester cut remained law, resulting in funding cuts to the WIC program in fiscal year 2013. Not to be forgotten is the House’s fiscal year 2014 funding bill which retains the sequester cuts to WIC of 7.3% and fails to fund breastfeeding peer counselors – vital in WIC’s effort to provide mothers the breastfeeding support they need, assure infants the first line of immunization defense and the best form of infant feeding, and an essential strategy in the fight against childhood obesity.
If Congress really cared about the well-being of mothers and young children served by WIC, here is what they would do:
NDD programs include WIC, food and consumer safety, housing assistance, child care assistance, national parks, federal law enforcement, certain agriculture programs, transportation infrastructure, health research, and many education programs, among other programs. Funding for NDD programs has declined by more than 11% from $540 billion to $483 billion between fiscal years 2010 and 2013.
Entrepreneurial WIC programs across the nation are already lean, implementing clinic consolidations, reduced clinic hours, hiring freezes, and food cost containment strategies that have left them little to no wiggle room in their mission to deliver effective, quality nutrition services. They are running short of strategies for dampening the impact of the upcoming sequester cut in January.
If sequestration remains law, WIC managers will be forced to triage WIC participants, removing mothers and young children considered to be at less nutrition risk than others. This is not a solution for an already at-risk and vulnerable population. It will only result in increased infant mortality, long-term health costs from more pre-term births, and reduced productivity as nutrition-deficient children are unprepared to enter school ready-to-learn.
While the House passed a temporary funding bill, HJ Res. 75 to fund the WIC program until December 15th, the funding level includes the sequester and rescission cuts from last year. Worse, the House has given no indication that it would like to protect WIC from cuts in the long-term. In fact, with their austere Budget Resolution and their support for the sequester for NDD programs, the House has mapped out a long-term strategy that would severely cut the WIC program. H.J. Res. 75 was an example of cherry-picking federal programs to fund and a cynical response to negative press. It is not a commitment to fund WIC for the long run.
The American public recognize why WIC is vital, one can only hope that members of Congress recognize the value of WIC for our nation’s mothers and young children and the nation’s future.