Some may say the shutdown of the federal government highlights that the ethos of House Republicans is “women and children first,” as in: “women and children are first in line to be sacrificed on the altar of political stagecraft.”
One of the many services and programs to be shuttered during the shutdown is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The program helps low-income pregnant women and parents with children under 5 years old facing nutritional risk by providing vouchers for healthy foods and infant formula, as well as services such as nutrition education, breastfeeding, and referrals to health and social programs.
According to the National WIC Association, nationwide nearly nine million people rely on WIC every month—including roughly half of all babies born in the United States.
In 2011, nearly 258,000 Pennsylvanians benefited from the WIC program. Of those, more than 200,000 were kids, and of those, more than 62,000 were infants.
It’s a wise investment. Research shows that participation not only reduces fetal deaths and infant mortality, but every $1 spent on WIC saves more than $4 in subsequent health-care costs, according to Maternal and Family Health Services.
According to a memo issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week, “States may have some funds available … to continue [WIC] operations for a week or so. But States would likely be unable to sustain operations for a longer period.”
Some states didn’t last the week. For example, by the end of business Tuesday, most of the 66 WIC clinics serving 66,000 people in Utah were shut down, according to the Deseret News.
Aimee Tysarczyk, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, estimates that the state spends an average of $3 million to $4 million a week on the program. In an email to RH Reality Check, she noted that Pennsylvania has enough money to fund normal WIC operations “for a few weeks.”
“We have approximately $6.3 million in carry forward funds for the administrative side and approximately $19.2 million in food funds, including rebates, to keep us operational in the short term,” said Tysarczyk.
But in the case of a long-term shutdown, the plan to continue WIC in Pennsylvania is unclear.
“If a long-term shutdown takes place, the department and the Corbett administration will do all we can to minimize impacts to recipients who depend on these vital services, to the extent possible,” said Tysarczyk.
Tysarczyk says that in the meanwhile, the agency is working directly with the USDA on a long-term contingency plan.
Like many other states, a halt in WIC services in Pennsylvania will disproportionately affect women and children of color.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, maternal and infant mortality rates were “significantly higher” among Black residents compared to white residents. In fact, infant mortality rates for Black Pennsylvanians is over two times higher than the rate for whites. Low birth weight and a total lack of prenatal care are significantly higher among Hispanic Pennsylvanians than white residents.