Beth Hughes of Tippecanoe County, Ind., is raising three kids with a fourth on the way. She works part time, and her husband is attending graduate school at Purdue while working as a research assistant. Their total annual income clocks in at $19,200 and they depend on funding from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to adequately feed their young.
“The WIC program has helped us be able to stay on budget and not go into debt,” Hughes said.
Hughes is one of tens of millions of people across America who depend on federally funded programs like WIC to help provide basic necessities for their children.
WIC provides both food assistance and access to dietitians and health professionals who consult participants. It is also one of the many domestic programs that has faced budget cuts over the last five years. The program undoubtedly works; a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that WIC improves birth weight, decreases infant mortality, increases the consumption of healthy foods, and improves food security, among other benefits for the 8 million served.
But the program has faced an 8 percent real cut over the past five years. While the cuts haven’t resulted in any applicants being turned away altogether, it has led to some extraordinary efforts to stretch the dollars to serve all eligible applicants.
Access is also drying up in places. In Hughes’ county, where nearly half of all live births are to mothers participating in WIC, the local WIC office has faced staff cuts and a reduction in continuing education for specialists. And in Louisville, Ky., budget cuts have forced the closure of three of the six WIC clinics.
Every budget renewal period is a constant struggle to maintain adequate WIC funding. This year is no different, with the National WIC Association promoting a letter-writing campaign that urges “Congress to fund the WIC Program adequately in FY2016...to assure that no eligible applicants be turned away, maintain current and anticipated WIC participation levels, assure adequate nutrition services and administration (NSA) funding, respond adequately to forecasts of food cost inflation, and provide funds for nutrition services to maintain clinic staffing and assure competitive salaries.”
Funding cuts aren’t the only barrier that is forming between children and adequate nutrition. Several states have started piling on restrictions specifically designed to keep infants, children, and women on WIC from purchasing some healthy foods.
In Wisconsin, the Republican-led crusade against feeding poor children has led them to make a long list of staple food items ineligible through WIC. The list includes baked beans, most frozen veggies, french fries and hash browns, most cheese products, bagels, brown eggs, anything in bulk, and anything organic or natural. The message is clear: children don’t deserve healthy food if they live in poverty. These restrictions prevent dietitians and nutritionists from doing their job and ensuring women and children get essential nutritional support.
Children are eligible for WIC funding until the age of six. Children in need then become eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which dedicates 47 percent of its funding to children. SNAP has suffered funding cuts amounting to a real decrease of 8.3 percent in 2015. As with WIC, many states are actively trying to limit what foods SNAP recipients can buy, despite clear evidence that these moves increase costs and are ineffective.
While WIC and SNAP have suffered budget cuts, nearly a dozen other programs focusing on children have been axed altogether in the past five years. These include such important programs as Alcohol Abuse Reduction, Civic Education Funds, Hunger Free Community Grants, and Support for Missing and Exploited Children.
The rallying cry at the First Focus Children’s Budget Summit this past Wednesday was that “children make up 25 percent of the population, 100 percent of the future, but only 8 percent of the federal budget.” Sequestration cuts have affected children’s programs particularly hard, accounting for a real funding cut of 9.4 percent since 2010. Education spending is down over 16 percent, and spending on child abuse and neglect prevention is down over 10 percent. Child welfare, income support, and housing have also suffered cuts. Department of Defense-run schools have seen a funding decline of over 40 percent, seriously compromising the quality of education provided to the children of our military service members.
The only major spending division that has increased over the past five years is mandatory spending on children. This increase is due not to a change in the direction of the Republican-controlled legislature, but instead by automatic triggers caused by more children moving into poverty since the Great Recession. Fewer families are able to provide adequate nutritional resources and housing assistance.
Unsurprisingly, there is broad support for increased spending on children. First Focus highlighted a 2011 poll from American Viewpoint which found that 67 percent of people strongly oppose cuts to child abuse prevention and 68 percent strongly oppose cuts to education.
It simply doesn’t make sense to leave our most vulnerable children hungry, cold, and poorly educated. As Patrick McCarthy, head of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, put it, “As a nation we are obsessed with economic indicators...except for those things that guarantee future economic growth. The greatest economic indicators 25 years out is how our children are doing.”
“A federal government devoting less than 8 percent of its budget to children is not making the kind of investments we need to ensure our children will succeed,” McCarthy said.
Rep. Michelle Grisham (D-N.M.), a leading advocate for children’s programs in the House who also spoke at the budget summit, described the amount as “shameful,” adding, “We know every dollar invested is even more returned – yet we see cuts.”
Sequestration cuts have wiped out support for many of those in need, especially those without a voice. It is imperative that we stop the bleeding and start fully funding children’s programs.
It is time, as Tiziana Dearing of Boston College put it, to “stop saying every child is our child and start believing that every child is our child.”