The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2009 Edition
by Victor Oliveira
and Elizabeth Frazão
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-73) 90 pp, April 2009
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants,
and Children (WIC) was created to safeguard the health of
low-income women, infants, and children ages 1-4 who are at
nutritional risk. WIC provides supplemental food, nutrition
education, and referrals to health care and other social services.
Almost half of all infants and about a quarter of all children ages
1-4 in the United States participate in the program. WIC is the
U.S. Department of Agriculture's third-largest food and nutrition
assistance program, with Federal expenditures of $6.2 billion
fiscal year (FY) 2008.
What Is the Issue?
The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (P.L.
108-265), which authorized funds
for the WIC program, expires on September 30, 2009.
Reauthorization provides an opportunity for policymakers to examine
issues associated with the operation and effectiveness of the
program. The goal of this report is to provide a better
understanding of how WIC works, provide its history and program
trends, and inform public debate on major economic issues facing
What Did the Study Find?
Numerous issues are associated with administering a program of
WIC's size and complexity. This report identifies and frames some
of these issues, focusing mainly on those with important economic
Expansion of the WIC Program. As a discretionary grant
program, the number of participants served by WIC depends on the
annual appropriation and the cost of operating the program.
Participation has grown dramatically over time, due largely to
increased congressional appropriations and to savings generated by
cost-containment practices. Although funding has been sufficient to
serve all eligible people seeking to enroll in the program in
recent years, many eligible people still do not participate in WIC.
Some groups contend that WIC should continue to increase
participation among those eligible, but others claim that WIC
eligibility requirements are too lenient and that WIC has expanded
too much. They also question
whether WIC would be more effective providing more intensive
services to fewer participants.
Federal Funding and State Incentives. Unlike the other
major USDA food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program), WIC
is 100 percent federally funded-that is, State matching funds are
not required. With little or no State funds at stake, State
officials have few incentives to restrict WIC enrollment and may
have little interest in WIC operations- factors cited in the
increasing number of participants and the proliferation of WIC-only
stores (stores that sell only or predominantly WIC foods and serve
only or predominantly WIC participants) in the early 2000s.
Funding for Nutrition Services and Administration (NSA). WIC
State agencies receive NSA grants to cover the costs of
administering the program and the costs associated with providing
key services, such as nutrition education and breastfeeding
promotion and support. NSA funds are based on a set amount per
participant, adjusted annually for inflation, and currently account
for 28 percent of total program costs. NSA funding levels have been
a source of considerable conflict. The debate centers on whether
NSA funds are too high and should be capped to allow for a greater
proportion of appropriated funds to be used for food benefits or
whether the funds merely reflect the success of the WIC program in
keeping food costs low while serving more participants from infant
Food Package Revisions. In December 2007, USDA revised
the WIC food packages to encourage positive changes in
participants' behaviors and outcomes while minimizing vendor burden
and maintaining cost neutrality. These revisions- which must be
implemented by October 1, 2009-represent the most significant
changes to the WIC program since its inception. The potential
impacts of the revised food packages on participants, vendors, and
food manufacturers, as well as on non-WIC consumers, are
Rising Food Prices. Prices for food at home rose 6
percent in 2008-the largest single-year increase since 1990.
Because food accounts for almost three-quarters of total WIC costs,
changes in food prices have important implications for program
funding and the number of participants the program can serve.
Increasing Infant Formula Costs. Federal law requires
that WIC State agencies enter into cost-containment contracts to
purchase infant formula. Typically, WIC State agencies obtain
substantial discounts through negotiated rebates from infant
formula manufacturers for each can of formula. In exchange, the
manufacturer is given the exclusive right to provide its product to
WIC participants in that State. Rebates, totaling about $1.8
billion in FY 2007, support about a quarter of all WIC
participants. Recent ERS research indicates, however, that the per
can cost of formula to WIC has increased. Because of the large
volume of infant formula purchased through WIC-the program
purchases over half of all infant formula sold in the United
States-even small increases in the per can cost could have
far-reaching negative implications for the program.
WIC's Effect on the Health of Participants. Much of the
research on WIC's impact on the health of participants has focused
on its effect on birth outcomes (e.g., birthweight, preterm
delivery, and infant mortality). Less research is available on
other health outcomes, such as the growth and development of
children, or on other participant groups. Changes in how the
program operates and in participant characteristics also contribute
to the need for new research. Methodological issues and the
complexity of health outcomes complicate researchers' ability to
assess the program's impact.
The Effectiveness of WIC's Nutrition Education Program.
Evaluating the effectiveness of WIC's nutrition education is
complicated by variation among and within States in its content,
how it is implemented, and the characteristics of the participants.
Efforts to improve nutrition education are constrained by limited
staff time with clients and limited financial resources.
WIC and Childhood Obesity. Increasing childhood obesity
has raised questions as to whether food and nutrition assistance
programs, such as WIC, contribute to the problem by providing too
much food and encouraging overeating. The prevalence of overweight,
however, is growing among both WIC and non-WIC children, and there
is little evidence that participation in WIC is associated with
increased prevalence of overweight. WIC food packages have recently
been revised, partly to reduce the amount of saturated fat,
cholesterol, and total fat provided in the supplemental food
package and improve eating patterns that promote healthy
WIC and Breastfeeding Rates. Low breastfeeding rates
among WIC participants have raised questions about WIC's effects on
breastfeeding. The 2007 WIC food package revisions provide stronger
incentives for breastfeeding by increasing the market value of the
food packages for infant/mother pairs who are fully breastfeeding.
How effective these increases will be in getting more women to
breastfeed and what effects higher breastfeeding rates may have on
program costs, given infant formula rebates, remains to be
How Was the Study Conducted?
Researchers from USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) examined
WIC's laws and regulations, program trends in terms of program
expenditures, number of participants, and infant formula rebates,
and a large number of WIC-related research publications.