So far, the federal program that provides food assistance and other support for women, infants, and children — known as WIC — has not been affected by the ongoing government shutdown. At least not yet.
But if the shutdown drags on much longer, benefits for some families could be reduced or cut off entirely, depending on how long the impasse lasts.
WIC covers about 8 million new mothers, infants, and children under 5 years old, at the cost of $6 billion a year. The majority of the program’s dollars pay for food assistance, but WIC also spends millions on breastfeeding support and infant formula.
There is enough funding available already out to the state and local departments that administer the program to provide WIC benefits through at least mid-February, advocates told me.
But after that, things could start to get dicey. Experts expect benefits would start to be reduced in the latter half of February, or March at the latest, depending on how much funding states can make available to stretch out. Benefits could start to be cut in a number of ways: WIC programs could start issuing benefits for just one month, instead of the usual three, or they might cut or end benefits for new mothers and older children, in order to prioritize the pregnant mothers and infants who rely on the program.
“By the end of March, we’ve reached a cliff,” says Rev. Douglas A. Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association. “The longer this goes on, the more uncertainty it creates ... the more dire the circumstances become.”
The USDA — the federal department that oversees WIC and the much larger food stamps program called SNAP — is one of several government agencies currently lacking federal funding until a new spending plan gets passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.
The USDA has said it is working with states to identify unspent and other funds that could be redirected to prevent a reduction in benefits.
“March of Dimes is very concerned that the shutdown will endanger WIC benefits if it persists longer than a couple more weeks,” Cindy Pellegrini at the advocacy organization says.
WIC and SNAP are both federal food assistance programs at risk of benefit cuts, but they are operated separately.
Benefits for the larger SNAP program, which covers nearly 40 million people who rely on it for food security, could also start to be reduced in February if the shutdown lingers into next month, as Vox’s Tara Golshan already reported:
Come February, the Department of Agriculture, among the nine federal agencies that shut down in December, is warning that it may have to severely cut the nation’s largest food aid program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly referred to as food stamps, the Washington Post reported.
Congress has appropriated funding for SNAP through January, according to the USDA. After that, the department has to tap into a $3 billion emergency fund, which won’t be able to cover even two-thirds of the program in February. In September 2018 — the most recent month with data available — states disbursed $4.7 billion in food aid through SNAP, which serves more than 38 million people.
In other words, unless the government reopens before the end of January, millions of Americans living below the poverty line could be left in the lurch and their access to food threatened by February. The USDA did not respond for comment.
But program advocates fear the effects are already being felt if beneficiaries or retailers are confused by the WIC’s status under the shutdown. Greenaway from the National WIC Association gave the example of a mom who goes to a supermarket to buy formula but is told by a mistaken cashier that she can’t use her WIC benefits to pay for it.