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Kentucky women and children could lose assistance amid shutdown fight

The WIC program managed to increase enrollment, but lower funding could threaten its stability.
Zach Lucero/Unsplash

The WIC program managed to increase enrollment, but lower funding could threaten its stability.

Some Kentuckians could lose essential federal assistance in the case of a government shutdown.
The Biden administration says the WIC program — formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — needs additional, emergency funding to keep serving families.The White House says WIC serves over 120,000 Kentuckians by providing baby formula, fresh food, health care referrals and more to mothers, newborns and infants.

This week, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is expected to approve bills this week with significant spending cuts, which could hit WIC.

Even if the appropriations bill doesn’t pass this week, the program will be at risk because a government shutdown would prevent federal agencies that administer assistance programs like WIC to fund them.

Dustin Pugel, a researcher at the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the program has been a lifesaver, especially during the pandemic.

“Infants in particular, the primary benefit they get from it is formula. I’m not sure why [lawmakers’] crosshairs are set on this particular program, it’s such a bargain,” he said.

WIC also helped during the national baby formula shortage, Pugel said. That’s because states including Kentucky contract with a baby formula provider directly, and that helped WIC-enrolled families maintain access to baby formula last year.

Tyler Offerman, a food justice advocate with Kentucky Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit poverty law advocacy and research center, said WIC is unique in that it’s both a food and health care assistance program.

“We do a good job of getting people enrolled. This is the first time the federal government is doing this with what’s been a bipartisan program for years,” he said of the plan to cut WIC’s funding.

Offerman said WIC benefits and services will continue as long as possible, though there could be a disruption next month if the shutdown takes effect.

“I say October, because no states have reserves in their funds for WIC that last longer than 30 days, especially if they have to burn through their reserves” he said.

The stability of the program could be in danger if the federal government shuts down, which could also roll back recent progress.

In 2020, state agencies pushed to enroll more families. WIC requires an in-person assessment, but that requirement was waived during the pandemic.

Last year, Congress passed a federal amendment to boost allowances for fresh fruits and vegetables, but cuts to WIC funding could end that benefit.

The proposed House bill would cut WIC funding by $185 million compared to the last fiscal year.

WIC served about half of eligible low income families last year, a bump up from just before the pandemic. The combination of higher enrollment and lower funding would cause a shortfall, Offerman said.

Lawmakers in Congress have less than a week to approve spending legislation before a partial shutdown starts on Sunday.