Support for mothers and children in dire economic circumstances does not qualify as a “mandatory” expenditure and will therefore not be protected from the fallout should the government shut down at midnight on Tuesday.
Unlike Social Security checks and many other safety net programs that can continue to operate under a shutdown, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will cease issuing payments, leaving state governments scrounging for leftover funds from other programs that could be used to pay WIC benefits. Nearly 9 million at-risk mothers, infants, and children stand to lose their government-provided food money should the government shut down, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Saturday.
Some states might be able “to continue operations for a week or so,” but “no additional federal funds would be available” to the program, according to the USDA memo on shutdown contingency planning. “States can probably shelter families receiving WIC from the effects of a shutdown for a short period, but it could be a real problem if it lasts more than a few days,” one analyst told the Huffington Post. Other nutritional programs the department runs such as school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) would continue to function.
WIC provides more narrowly tailored assistance than the traditional food stamps program. At a cost of $6 billion per year, WIC targets pregnant women, women who recently gave birth, and children up to age 5 who have problems getting the proper early-childhood nutrition for economic or medical reasons. The program served 8.9 million people in 2012 and helps reduce overall poverty.
Its importance in the lives of those it serves is clear from the stories of some who have relied on it. The Center for American Progress’ Half in Ten anti-poverty campaign has collected stories from mothers like Nancy of Williamsport, Maryland, who was hospitalized shortly after her first child was born. “WIC provided us with formula that we would never have been able to afford,” Nancy said. “Without the formula and groceries that WIC helped us with over these years, we would be further in debt.” Amanda, from Forest Park, Illinois, found herself having to quit one of her jobs due to an illness during her pregnancy, and she and her husband lost their health insurance. WIC not only provided vouchers that enabled Amanda to maintain her own nutrition while pregnant but also gave her an opportunity to take a position as a breastfeeding care counselor in underserved communities in and around Chicago.
The millions of Amandas and Nancys whose family diets would be affected by a shutdown have already had to absorb significant cuts to WIC this year. Sequestration and other cuts combined to slice about $500 million off of the program’s 2013 budget.
Should a shutdown occur, it would be the culmination of three years of GOP efforts to put the government on the brink of failure. The party’s most recent attempt was requiring that any bill to fund government operations include a measure defunding Obamacare. While the GOP seems poised to force a shutdown over the issue, a shutdown will not slow or stop the implementation of the health care law.