Shutdown threatens Women, Infants, and Children food benefits

Posted: October 05, 2013

For 30 years, a government nutrition program has helped keep infants alive while enjoying a status that placed it above politics, supported by the left and right.

Now, that could be changing, as the federal shutdown threatens funding for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

By the end of October, low-income women and children in Pennsylvania will begin to run out of WIC benefits if much of the U.S. government remains shuttered, according to state officials and advocates.

Women and children in New Jersey - and all other states - are in similar straits, antihunger advocates said.

New Jersey officials did not respond to requests for information. But a New Jersey Department of Health memo obtained by The Inquirer said that all current WIC vouchers should be honored "until further notice." However, new applicants will not receive benefits "until the shutdown has been resolved."

Along with WIC problems, more trouble looms: On Nov. 1, federal cuts to food-stamp benefits will go into effect, eliminating 21 meals per month for a family of four. That will affect three million people living in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

And the shutdown also could cut by 30 percent the supply of food sent by the Department of Agriculture to area food pantries, advocates said.

It's a series of events never seen before, with potentially catastrophic results, they said.

"I thought legislators were supposed to help people," Steveanna Wynn, executive director of SHARE Food Program, which supplies food to more than 500 pantries in the Philadelphia area. "It's a very cruel and uncaring society we live in at the moment."

In all, more than 250,000 Pennsylvania women and children receive WIC - 70,000 of them in Philadelphia. In New Jersey, nearly 170,000 women and children get the benefit.

WIC provides vouchers to 8.8 million women nationwide that can be used to purchase only predetermined foods, such as milk, eggs, and baby formula.

The $7 billion program also helps women find maternal, prenatal, and pediatric health-care services, as well as nutrition-education services.

Various government reports show that about 52 percent of U.S. infants get WIC, which is credited with reducing childhood anemia, promoting healthy brain and body growth, and fostering development of low-birthweight babies.

People are eligible for WIC if they are at 185 percent of the federal poverty level or below. That works out to about $28,000 annually for a family of two, and about $36,000 for a family of three.

Most people on WIC - nearly two-thirds - live in poverty, according to the National WIC Association, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

Women and children could suffer greatly if WIC were cut because of the government shutdown, said Douglas Greenaway, association president.

"The health consequences could be more premature births and low birth weights," he said, adding that it cost $20,000 a pound to raise an infant to normal weight - costs borne by taxpayers.

"Every day that Congress doesn't focus on the vulnerabilities of WIC women and children," Greenaway said, "the more they're at risk."

Such are the worries facing Cherice Murray, 39, of Media, the single mother of two children under 8, including a 7-month-old son who was born premature and whose twin died after living only a month.

Employed nearly all her adult life, Murray, who is three classes short of a bachelor's degree in business, receives $280 in WIC benefits a month - $180 of it for her son's formula, made specially for premature babies.

Murray was laid off last year from a $32,000-a-year job as an administrative assistant, one month before learning she was pregnant. Her unemployment benefits ran out last month.

Murray only recently started getting WIC, a dependence that disturbs her.

"I'm not using WIC as a lifelong crutch," said Murray, who continues to look for a job. "I'm a worker, and I always will be."

Between WIC and food-stamp benefits that she just started receiving, Murray's current annual income is $5,280, or $14,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Without WIC, she's facing disaster, she said.

"If WIC goes out, I have to decide whether I'll eat," she said. "I have to feed the baby and my 7-year-old. Where would that money come from? And I can't afford the special formula for the baby.

"I can't wrap my head around this."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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