Changes to WIC eligibility have led to poorly targeted program

WASHINGTON (Dec. 1, 2016) – Changes in methodology used to determine eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, have led both to unsustainable growth and to a program that poorly targets assistance, in some cases to recipients who earn several times the poverty line, according to new research by R Street Associate Fellow Doug Besharov and Douglas M. Call, a senior research analyst at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

The research is presented in an extensive new report co-produced by the R Street Institute and the University of Maryland, as well as in condensed form in a new R Street policy study.

“Given WIC’s purpose, benefit package and putative eligibility rules, one would assume its benefits would be targeted to the most needful Americans. But various formal and informal changes have liberalized these criteria,” the authors write. “According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, about 24 percent of WIC recipients in 2014 lived in families with annual incomes that were more than WIC’s putative income cap of 185 percent of poverty, and about 8 percent in families with annual incomes at or above 300 percent of poverty. In 2014, about 49 percent of all American infants were on WIC and about 39 percent of postpartum and breast-feeding mothers received WIC benefits.”

Among the potential reforms considered in the study is the possibility of giving states more flexibility to determine precisely how they spend funds, with an eye toward ultimately spending less on growing the ranks of potential recipients in favor of enhancing services for current recipients, including increased emphases on healthy foods and counseling.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that programs such as WIC require detailed audits, lest seemingly benign methodological changes result in unexpected consequences.

“All means-tested programs would benefit from a similar examination. Hence, the larger lesson from this paper’s analysis is that policymakers, administrators, and the public need a better understanding of the nature and application of income-eligibility rules across the panoply of means-tested programs. Details matter. As we have seen, identifiable variations in how and when to measure income can shift eligibility for large numbers of families.”

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