Trump budget: food vouchers for hundreds of thousands of women and children at risk

Molly Redden in New York
The Trump White House’s budget proposal could lead to hundreds of thousands of women and children losing access to food vouchers. Photograph: Mathieson Sr/Rex/Shutterstock

The preliminary budget proposal released by the Trump White House on Thursday proposes cuts to a program that could result in hundreds of thousands of women, infants and children losing access to food vouchers. The cuts proposed are similar to those sought in recent years by House Republicans as they targeted social welfare programs for federal savings.

Trump’s budget proposes to cut the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, from $6.4bn to $6.2bn. The program, which is aimed at reducing infant and maternal mortality and morbidity, provides food vouchers for low-income pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under five years old, as well as breastfeeding support and nutrition education.

While Trump’s proposed cut, of $200m, represents just a 4% reduction in the program’s budget, a cut of that size would nevertheless force WIC to turn away hundreds of thousands of eligible mothers and children, progressive thinktanks have argued. More than 7.8 million women and children participated in WIC in the first three months of the 2016 fiscal year. Children and infants usually make up three-quarters of WIC recipients.

And the program is already hobbled. WIC differs from other forms of welfare in that not everyone who is eligible for WIC assistance is guaranteed to receive it. In 2013, the program served only about half of all eligible infants born in the US. Congress’s inability to pass a budget that year also forced many WIC field offices to close. Families with children or pregnant mothers living at or below 185% of the federal poverty line are generally eligible for the program.

When WIC cannot serve everyone who applies, it gives priority to pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, and children who are at risk of malnourishment because of a medical or dietary problem.

Research suggests that WIC may have had a hand in eradicating some food deserts – neighborhoods with little or no access to fresh or healthy foods – and causing the rate of early childhood obesity to go into freefall. Beginning in 2009, the program, which dates to the 1970s, began providing vouchers for fresh produce and permitted the purchase of whole grains and baby food.

A group of Yale University researchers observed 300 Connecticut grocery stores before and after the change in policy and found that many began to carry more whole wheat products and fruits and vegetables.

That change has also been linked to a steady decline in the calorie consumption of households with children. In 2013, health officials in 18 states said the obesity rate had decreased for WIC-enrolled preschoolers.

It is only recently that WIC has become a target of conservatives seeking to slash government funding. In the 1990s and 2000s, WIC for the most part enjoyed bipartisan support. But House Republicans have been seeking to slash WIC since 2012, when they proposed cuts of $243m. Democrats in the Senate blocked those cuts.