Las Vegas Sun

March 3, 2024

GUEST COLUMN:

Funding WIC is a matter of priorities, not money

Although we’ve seen progress this year in lowering inflation and reducing the prices of some basic goods, that progress is not coming fast enough for millions of people. Many of those people cannot defer basic needs — such as food, shelter and health care — until macroeconomic conditions fully improve. They need lawmakers in Congress to take action now to preempt harm.

In the past, we’ve been able to depend on lawmakers to put aside partisanship when it comes to a few key programs and issues — nutrition is one. For the past 25 years, for instance, policymakers have acted on a bipartisan commitment to provide nutrition services through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) for everyone eligible.

WIC provides food, breastfeeding support and other vital services to low-income pregnant and postpartum people, infants and children under age 5 who are at risk for poor nutrition and all the negative health consequences that come with it. As a brand new mother myself, the thought of these parents and children lacking the assistance they need to survive breaks my heart.

Because of rising inflation and increasing food prices over the past couple of years, demand for WIC has increased tremendously, but the program’s funding has not, despite higher-than-expected participation and more expensive food costs. Without more funding, WIC could face a shortfall in 2024 that could result in over 2 million young children and pregnant and postpartum mothers being denied nutrition benefits.

In Nevada, 16,000 people could go without food that they are legally eligible to get through WIC if the program runs out of money due to increased demand.

Anyone who has been grocery shopping in the past year can see that the same amount of money buys less food today than it did just a couple of years ago. It’s time for Congress to acknowledge that reality and take action to address the coming shortfall in WIC so everyone can get the basic nutrition they need.

Nutritious and sufficient food during pregnancy and in the early years of a child’s life have dramatic implications for the future health of the mother and the child. Research shows that WIC helps improve health for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, and improves health and economic outcomes in later life. Academic studies show that every dollar spent on WIC saves $2.48 by cutting health care costs that result from hunger.

Beyond being a sound commonsense investment, increasing funding to feed young children and pregnant or new mothers is the right thing to do given the tremendous wealth and capacity of our nation. At the end of November, the collective wealth of America’s 741 billionaires grew to $5.2 trillion, the highest amount ever recorded. Thanks to the 2017 tax law, many billionaires can hold onto their wealth tax-free or by paying a lower tax rate than many middle-class workers like teachers or firefighters, because of loopholes that allow them to avoid paying what they owe.

The dilemma we face when it comes to WIC and other basic needs programs isn’t a financial one, it’s about priorities. After all, if we can afford to give billionaires million-dollar tax breaks, then we can also afford to increase funding for a program that gives moms, babies, toddlers and kindergartners a better start in life. It’s a no-brainer that investments in kids should be a higher priority than tax breaks for some of the world’s richest people.

It’s time for lawmakers in Congress to focus on making sure every American — no matter where they live or how much money they have — is equipped with the basics to get a fair shot, be healthy and maximize their opportunity for a successful future. WIC is an investment in families and kids that benefits all of us in the future and requires action right now.

Shelbie Swartz is executive director of Battle Born Progress.