NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Welfare Experts Propose Reforming Nutrition Program (WIC)

February 1, 2002

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) costs $5 billion per year and serves about 7.3 million women and children. But experts say research shows "WIC's benefits are modest at best."

The goal of the 30-year-old WIC program is to prevent nutritional deficiencies that can cause physical or medical problems among low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and post-partum women, and their infants and children up to age five.

It seeks to improve their diets by providing healthy foods, together with nutrition education, counseling and referral services. The U.S. Department of Agriculture grants WIC funds to state health departments, which, in turn, fund WIC services though local health-related agencies such as health departments, hospitals, public health clinics and community health centers.

Among the problems welfare experts see in the program:

  • Claims that every dollar spent on WIC saves $3 in Medicaid costs relate only to the prenatal program -- which involves only about 11 percent of program participants -- and even there the evidence suggests the benefits are modest at best.
  • Among the conditions WIC is intended to ameliorate are prematurity and low birthweight among pregnant women -- but in fact, from 1986 to 1998, the incidence of low birthweight increased by 12 percent.
  • WIC has been expanded to serve the lower middle class -- when it might have been more effective to improve services for generally needier families.
  • For example, WIC's rigid spending rules effectively prevent local programs from providing more than about 30 minutes for nutrition education every six months and preclude enriching food packages with such items as iron supplements.

Moreover, Congress developed WIC almost 30 years ago, when hunger was the major nutrition-related problem. Since then, overweight has superseded hunger as our most serious nutrition-related health problem.

Source: Douglas J. Besharov and Peter Germanis, "Rethinking WIC: An Evaluation of the Women, Infants, and Children Program," 2001; Book Summary No. 13241, October 2001, American Enterprise Institute.


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