Will proposed budget shrink WIC benefits for military families?


(Photo: Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall PAO, Nell King)

By J.G. Noll

The current proposed federal budget for Fiscal Year 2018 recommends roughly a 21 percent cut to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal department that oversees the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). While WIC is not a direct target of the slimming budget, the proposal calls for $150 million less for Fiscal Year 2018’s than 2017’s appropriation. If passed, military families and veterans’ families could be affected.

WIC serves low-income pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under five through food vouchers for healthy, fresh, and nutrient-rich foods such as beans, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. The program also provides nutrition and health education and breastfeeding support.

In order to be eligible for WIC, a family must be living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. There is a sliding scale that takes into account the number of members in the family; however, states are able to set some of their own guidelines, which means that eligibility can vary widely depending on where a family lives. For military families, WIC regulations allow states to determine eligibility on annual base pay before taxes. This means that states are free to exclude military allowances and benefits like BAH and BAS. Applicants who are eligible for WIC benefits are not guaranteed to receive them.

Many military families–especially young enlisted families–lean on WIC to stretch what they spend on food and supplement their groceries. Official, governmental statistics specifically regarding military use of WIC are incomplete at best and difficult to come by.

But anecdotal evidence would point to a substantial amount of families using such assistance. The USDA has a designated webpage set aside specifically for the military community, outlining food-assistance programs that are available, which includes WIC and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps). Previously, the USDA has estimated that anywhere between 2,000 and 22,000 active duty members and 1.5 million veterans use SNAP benefits. SNAP reports that in 2016, 190 military commissaries logged more than $66 million in voucher redemptions. (At the time of publishing this piece, we could find no data or conjecture on the military-connected use of WIC benefits.)

In the first quarter of 2016, WIC’s caseload included more than 7.8 million women and children. Only about a quarter of the people served by WIC are adult women; about 75 percent of WIC’s beneficiaries are infants and children under the age of five.

According to a press release from the National WIC Association–a nonprofit advocacy group–last week, “WIC caseloads have continued a steady decline from a high of 9.2 million in 2010 to a current participation level of 7.3 million.” A $150 million cut to the program probably will not wholesale threaten the program’s ability to provide vouchers for those who are currently receiving assistance, but it could “impede WIC’s ability to provide local education programming and breastfeeding support, or administer its existing programs,” The Guardian conjectures.

These programs help to increase the long-term effects of WIC. The nutrition education program teaches mothers how to budget and how to “best use their food dollars for healthy eating;” offers nutritional coaching during the scope of pregnancy and postpartum life; and provides education services around the nutritional needs of children, according to military spouse and on-base WIC advocate, Danielle Porter. In addition, “They offer food safety advice and storage suggestions for breast milk. . . [and] can help with advising the mother on how to increase her supply of breast milk with whole food nutrition.”

For those who need–or choose– to use formula, WIC can also supply the nutrient-rich food. Kathryn Sneed, an Air Force spouse, was such a beneficiary when her children were young. She notes that, “Without the cost of formula being covered, I have no idea what we would have done.”

Military families have long dealt with unintended financial repercussions of active duty service. Military spouses’ unemployment rates are roughly three times that of their civilian counterparts and their underemployment rates hover at 90 percent, according to a 2014 survey. Military families often do not have family support close by which means that child care is often costly or difficult to secure. Frequent moves can create career instability for the spouse, which often means lower salary or wage opportunities and less money earned over the spouse’s lifetime.

For families stationed overseas, WIC can help to bridge some of the gap created by more expensive groceries and a spouse who is unable to work. “Those small essentials like milk, bread, cheese, and fruits (which can add up) help out so much. And it [WIC] helps ensure children and pregnant moms get adequate nutrition,” D’Antrese McNeil, a Navy spouse, said. She noted that, for her family, WIC makes a substantial difference in their food budget.

For many military families, the stigma of using food assistance while serving the country stings. Alicia Rogers, Marine spouse and former WIC recipient notes that she and her husband “worried about where the next meal for our children would come from. The assistance from WIC was what kept our heads barely above water, and our children’s bellies full.” The cost of childcare and a relentless deployment cycle kept her from being able to work outside of the home to help make ends meet.

“Nearly a decade later, as a college-educated spouse with a career in the media industry and a husband still serving this country proudly on active duty, I look back and know we owe complete thanks to vital assistance programs that were there to keep us afloat and keep our family fed,” Rogers says.

J.G. Noll is the Editor of Military One Click and a veteran’s spouse. She can be reached at joanna@militaryoneclick.com.