The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and
Children, known as WIC, has seen a sharp drop in participation since
2010, unlike food stamps and other anti-poverty programs that
ballooned during the 2007-9 recession and the economic recovery that
followed, government figures show.
"WIC providers are tearing their hair, beating their chests, 'what
are they doing wrong?'" said Laurie True, California WIC Association
Poverty experts say the shrinking demand does not reflect less need.
They are pushing for faster changes to an outdated, cumbersome
distribution process they say stigmatizes recipients.
Participants complain of customers "shaming" them in grocery lines,
said Sarah Monje, California's Native American Health Center WIC
"I can feel the aura: 'Oh my god, this girl is taking forever,'"
said WIC recipient Marquel Davis of Austin, Texas.
With a generation of Americans "used to getting everything on their
smartphones,” True said, WIC is still "stuck in the hands-on
"That doesn't make the program as attractive to people who may be on
the border lines, the working poor and very busy - most of our
participants work at least one job," she said.
Congress mandated in 2010 that WIC switch to electronic benefit
cards by 2020. All but nine U.S. states still rely on paper vouchers
that program directors say hold up grocery-store lines and embarrass
Davis, 26, said it was a hassle trying to redeem her WIC checks
before Texas switched to an electronic system several years ago. The
program pays only for specified foods sold in certain quantities.
"You've got to separate [your groceries] and make sure it's the
right one, right size, and on top of that, you got to sign and they
got to initial," Davis said. "It's just hectic, especially if you
have a kid shopping with you and you're trying to get home."
WIC gives low-income pregnant, post-partum or breastfeeding women
and kids up to age five vouchers worth about $43 each month for
formula and healthy foods that adhere to federal nutrition
requirements, such as limiting added sugar in yogurt and mandating
that bread include whole wheat flour.
The program requires recipients to attend classes on eating well and
Though WIC grew fairly steadily since its inception in 1972, U.S.
Department of Agriculture data shows it shrank 10.6 percent between
fiscal year 2010 and May 2014.
Staff members "don't have a sense of declining need in their
communities," said analyst Zoe Neuberger of the Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities, a poverty-focused think tank.
[to top of second column]
Participants dropped from 9.2 million to 8.2 million from 2010 to
May, decreasing in every state and the District of Columbia,
according to USDA. In Georgia, caseload plummeted 46 percent since
Conversely, food stamp enrollment skyrocketed from 28.2 million in
2008 to 47.6 million in 2013 under expansions in President Barack
Obama's 2009 stimulus package, though it fell to 46.2 million in May
after benefits expired last November.
But the smaller, more targeted WIC started shrinking years earlier
and to a greater extent relative to enrollment, USDA data shows.
The social stigma, always a factor for some people, was accentuated
by a distribution system largely unchanged in four decades,
Many women have switched to food stamps, which use a debit-like card
but lack such WIC benefits as affording expensive baby formula,
feeding children healthier food and learning workplace breastfeeding
rights, directors said.
Being required to attend WIC advising sessions every one to three
months can be a problem for low-income workers.
Those include illegal immigrants, who may be deterred over fear of
an immigration crackdown, New York-based nonprofit Community Food
Advocates co-founder Agnes Molnar said. The WIC program does not
require proof of citizenship, though state or tribal residency is
Michael Osur, who runs 18 WIC clinics in southern California's
Riverside County, saw an almost 40 percent drop in the percentage of
people requesting materials in Spanish from 2007 to 2013.
Lingering effects from last October's government shutdown, when
clinics shuttered or scraped by on reserve funds, also hurt WIC,
National WIC Association CEO Douglas Greenaway said.
If caseload continues to drop, Congress will cut funding and clinics
will close, consolidate and limit overtime and weekend services,
In California, Osur was opening mobile neighborhood clinics,
insisting many women were neglecting critical help.
"I think the need is there," he said. "We've just got to find a way
to reach them."
(Reporting by Annika McGinnis; Editing by Caren Bohan and Doina
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.