A federal program that helps poor families afford healthy food could see substantial benefit cuts starting in October, raising the prospect that roughly 6 million low-income Americans could become some of the earliest victims of an unresolved Washington budget battle.
The looming cliff adds to the political pressure on Congress, which now has mere weeks to shore up the program's finances, fund the federal government and avert a potentially catastrophic shutdown.
Under the program known as WIC, the U.S. government provides financial support for low-income pregnant and nursing women, as well as children up to age 5. They can qualify for aid to purchase select foods, including cash vouchers specifically for fruits and vegetables, which lawmakers expanded -- and roughly tripled in amount -- at the height of the pandemic.
For years, these and other changes have made it easier and more attractive for families to enroll in WIC, reversing years of steady decline. But the extra federal support has proven more costly than expected because low-income Americans have flocked to the program while the price of food has risen dramatically.
To prevent any interruption in benefits, President Joe Biden's administration formally asked Congress on Thursday to approve $1.4 billion in emergency funds for WIC as part of any short-term deal to fund the government beyond the Sept. 30 deadline. The request hinges on House Republicans, who have tried to slash WIC funding in a move that could spell cuts to poor Americans' monthly nutritional support.
"It's unfortunate that when the federal government can't come to an agreement, it always ends up impacting the most vulnerable communities," said Eric Mitchell, the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, an advocacy group that supports WIC funding and expansion.
The future of nutrition aid ranks among the many high-stakes choices that lawmakers face roughly four weeks before federal funding is set to lapse. Their looming decisions -- about which agencies and programs to cut or expand -- could carry immediate impacts for the millions of families that rely on the U.S. government for financial support.
Three months ago, Democrats and Republicans thought they had sidestepped another fiscal showdown after Biden brokered a deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that spared the country from default and identified maximum spending levels for the next fiscal year. But lawmakers since then have not sent a single appropriations bill to the president's desk, choosing instead to depart for a monthlong summer recess. In the meantime, many far-right House Republicans have urged their party to spend far less than the agreed amounts, threatening to shut down the government to achieve steep budget cuts.
Caught in the middle are federal initiatives like the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, created in the 1970s to help low-income Americans who face special dietary needs. It provides select foods, including bread, cereal, eggs, cheese and infant formula, to families that meet certain income and health guidelines. These participants also receive cash vouchers to obtain fruits and vegetables, with exact amounts that vary by participant.
Before the pandemic, some families and nutrition experts saw the aid as critical yet inadequate, complicated by the fact that WIC requires poor Americans to submit to a grueling review process involving in-person visits. The demands historically proved onerous for single parents, who could not easily request time off from work, and rural residents, who faced long and sometimes costly drives just to reach state offices.
In response, Democrats sought to address both issues as part of the coronavirus aid package known as the American Rescue Plan. The 2021 law opened the door for families to obtain aid through telehealth services, allowing mothers to use tools like FaceTime or Zoom to receive nutrition counseling through the program.
The stimulus package and subsequent bipartisan spending bills also expanded some benefits. Congress ultimately increased the fruit and vegetable voucher to $24 per month for children, $43 for pregnant and postpartum women and $47 for aid recipients who are breastfeeding babies -- more than the $9 to $11 that families had received before the pandemic.
The changes reflected recommendations from federal scientists and nutrition experts, and it helped slow a decade-long decline in WIC participation. Over the first seven months of 2023, the nutrition program saw a roughly 4.5% increase in enrollment compared with the same period last year, according to an official at the Agriculture Department who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the agency's data.
"WIC right now is in a tremendous growth period," said Geri Henchy, the director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit, adding that the changes to WIC had altered some Americans' thinking about whether to apply for aid. "Low-income families are basically making a decision by evaluating how hard it's going to be to participate relative to what they get."
The spike in food costs nationally -- and the new burst in enrollment -- also depleted WIC funds more rapidly than anticipated. The program on average paid out more than $56 per person in food benefits by this May, according to the USDA, with total benefits this fiscal year exceeding $4.4 billion over the first eight months of 2023.
The price tag soon added fuel to the ongoing war in Washington over federal spending, even though lawmakers historically have supported WIC on a bipartisan basis. Without a funding boost, experts said the program could face a significant shortfall, even forcing some states -- which oversee the administration of WIC -- to institute waiting lists as soon as this winter.
"[States] have to pick who gets turned away from WIC. So hundreds of thousands of people who should be getting this incredibly important, evidence-based, high-impact food assistance will get turned away from the program," said Sharon Parrott, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning group that has advocated for the program.
If the Biden administration does not secure new funds, it could mark the second major blow for cash-strapped families this year after Republicans led an effort to roll back an expansion to food stamps, a federal aid program that helps lower-income Americans purchase groceries. The disruption to WIC could leave "women and children to go hungry" while "pushing vulnerable families into poverty," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday.
On Capitol Hill, some Democrats said this week that they would fight vigorously to prevent such benefit cuts.
"As we get new information about what the needs are, you can bet that I will fight tooth and nail to ensure we are not shortchanging WIC," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "Making sure families across the country with the tightest budgets can put food on the table is not just the right thing to do, it's an investment in these families' futures -- I know that firsthand."
Foreshadowing a potential fight, however, House Republicans advanced a spending bill this June that slashes the budget for nutrition aid, essentially reverting fruit and vegetable vouchers to their older, lower amount. Explaining the party's thinking, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., the leader of the top subcommittee overseeing USDA spending, said lawmakers needed to "right-size programs, especially since the pandemic is over."
Harris, a leading member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, also blamed Biden for inflation and pledged that "all eligible participants will be served at this funding level." His office declined to comment for this story.
The GOP approach reflects the party's attempts to reduce the deficit by targeting federal education, health care, labor and science agencies and cutting funds for a slew of anti-poverty programs. The White House maintains that the effects on WIC would be substantial: The Republican-led cuts could reduce monthly fruit and vegetable benefits by 70% for pregnant women and 56% for children, while potentially forcing 1.9 million participants onto a waitlist for aid, the administration said this week.
Poor families could experience even more severe disruptions in the event of a government shutdown. While the USDA technically can operate WIC if federal funding lapses, states could only continue paying benefits for as long as they have leftover money. A shutdown at the end of 2018 into the following January, for example, brought some states within a month of having to cut benefits, institute waitlists or take other drastic action, according to Paul Throne, a top nutrition official for Washington state.
Nearly a decade later, state leaders and nutrition experts fear that the fight in Washington, D.C., once again could leave millions of women and children in a financial bind.
"It wouldn't go very far in covering the cost of supplemental foods if we were to experience a federal government shutdown," said Kate Franken, the chair of the board at the National WIC Association, which represents provider agencies and nutrition experts. "We need a higher level of funding."
Information for this article was contributed by Laura Reiley of The Washington Post.