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As Hunger Grows Across US, GOP Shutdown Threats Imperil Food Aid Programs

Up to 750,000 children, postpartum adults, and others eligible for WIC could be turned away from the program.

Grocery items are offered for sale at a supermarket on August 9, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.

Republican threats to shut down the federal government if spending isn’t drastically cut have put funding for a critical nutrition aid program at risk as hunger grows across the nation, with the recent lapse of pandemic-era assistance leaving many low-income families struggling to put food on the table.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, is one of many federal programs that could face severe impacts if Congress fails to fund the government by September 30.

As The Washington Post’s Tony Romm reported Sunday, “While USDA technically can operate WIC if federal funding lapses, states could only continue paying benefits for as long as they had 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 actions,” Romm noted, citing a Washington state nutrition official. “Nearly a decade later, state leaders and nutrition experts fear the fight in the nation’s capital once again could leave millions of women and children in a financial bind.”

WIC, long a target of Republican lawmakers, gives states grants to provide nutrition aid and other assistance to pregnant and postpartum adults and children up to the age of five. House Republican appropriators have proposed sharp cuts to WIC for the coming fiscal year, even as policy experts say a significant funding increase is needed as participation in the program grows.

In a recent report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) warned that up to 750,000 eligible toddlers, preschoolers, postpartum adults, and others eligible for WIC could be turned away from the program if the House GOP’s proposed funding levels become law.

“Another 4.6 million toddlers and preschoolers and pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding participants would have their benefits cut significantly,” the group estimated. “In total, the House bill would cut food assistance for, or take it away altogether from, roughly 5.3 million young children and pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding adults.”

CBPP argued that the program will need roughly $7.3 billion in total funding for fiscal year 2024 to provide full benefits to WIC recipients. Republicans, who already secured more strict work requirements for SNAP recipients in a debt ceiling deal with the White House, want to approve just $5.5 billion for WIC.

In an effort to stave off disaster, the Biden White House last week urged the divided Congress to pass a short-term government funding measure that includes $1.4 billion in additional funding for WIC.

Romm emphasized Sunday that “the request hinges on House Republicans, who recently have tried to slash WIC funding in a move that could spell cuts to poor Americans’ monthly nutritional support.”

The White House estimates that the GOP’s proposed WIC 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,” Romm added.

The far-right House Freedom Caucus, which has dozens of members, has threatened to oppose any short-term funding agreement that does not impose steep cuts to federal spending and put an end to the “unprecedented weaponization” of the Justice Department, an apparent reference to the prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

The House, led by Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is set to return from August recess next week. As CNN reported Sunday, “GOP hardliners in the House are eager to play a game of chicken over the end-of-the-month deadline to fund federal agencies, seeking to force the White House and Senate to make a choice: Accept a slew of conservative priorities or risk a debilitating government shutdown.”

Republican appropriators have called for major cuts to a range of federal programs related to education, environmental protection, and more.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, wrote on social media over the weekend that “House Democrats are ready to move on funding for disaster relief and other crises.”

“House Republicans,” she added, “are listening to their most extreme members on steps that could slow the flow of relief and put us to the brink of a government shutdown.”

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