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GOP Is Trying to Slash Food Aid to Kids Who Are Already Struggling to Access It

A recent study suggests that more than 53 percent of young kids who are eligible for food aid haven’t been getting it.

A child accompanies his grandmother choosing groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City on December 11, 2013, in New York City.

A crucial form of federal nutritional assistance failed to reach the majority of eligible young children in recent years, even as conservative lawmakers have tried to smear public benefits recipients and further curtail their access to food aid.

A study published last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that in 2018, 53.4 percent of kids between the ages of 1 and 4 weren’t receiving help through the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), despite receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

WIC benefits are available to those with pretax income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $36,482 annually for a two-person household. The means test for SNAP benefits is more stringent, cutting off benefits to those with incomes above 130 percent of the federal poverty line.

The UDSA report also found that 34.1 percent of infants were failing to receive WIC benefits, despite receiving help through SNAP. As a result, an entire generation of vulnerable young children is growing up without receiving all the nutritional benefits available to them.

“Increasing WIC participation, particularly among populations with relatively low participation in WIC, is likely to improve health outcomes for these populations,” the USDA report said.

Benefits include the higher likelihood of prenatal care and healthy birth weights, and higher intakes of iron, potassium and fiber. And the benefits accrue to young children despite WIC payments being relatively meager. In 2021, the average program participant received about $2 per day. Recipients of SNAP benefits can expect to see no more than $6 per day next year.

WIC benefits are available to infants and children up to age 5, and to those who are pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding. The USDA study found that the WIC nonparticipation rate for SNAP beneficiaries who are pregnant or in the postpartum period was 77.8 percent and 34.0 percent respectively, with the former data point particularly troubling when considering the health benefits of prenatal nutrition. Studies have shown that the U.S. has worse child health outcomes than most other high income countries despite higher levels of spending per person on health care.

The USDA report was issued after a steady decline in WIC participation throughout the 2010s, according to an advocacy group called the National WIC Association. The trend appears to have reversed itself this year, the group said, noting about 200,000 more people than expected enrolled between October 2022 and April 2023. But the organization warned that government funding isn’t keeping pace with renewed interest.

“If Congress does not adequately fund WIC, providers would have to institute waiting lists for the first time in three decades,” the National WIC Association said in a recent policy briefing.

Brian Dittmeier, the association’s senior policy director, told Truthout that Congress has adequately funded WIC since the 1990s, but the situation requires close monitoring under the current political climate. On Wednesday, House Republicans advanced legislation that would cut WIC benefits relied on by more than 5 million people.

“Only individuals who have never been hungry could do something like this. This shortage will result in more low-birthweight babies and infant mortality,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) before the bill was advanced by the House Appropriations Committee.

Recent increases in benefits for fresh fruit and vegetables — which have helped drive the uptick in WIC participation, according to Dittmeier — would be reversed under the Republican proposal.

“The value of the benefit has often been too small to incentivize families coming into the clinic,” Dittmeier said. He noted that participation has also increased thanks to the ability to remotely enroll in WIC, a development catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel costs can create a serious barrier to participation, especially to people in sparsely populated rural areas.

This legislative session, Congress has been hell-bent on attacking recipients of food aid. Since winning the House majority after last November’s midterm, Republicans used their power to advance legislation tightening SNAP eligibility — and they did so by threatening to engineer a U.S. government default, an unprecedented event that would likely cause catastrophic global economic crises.

An entire generation of vulnerable young children is growing up without receiving all the nutritional benefits available to them.

On April 17, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) unveiled the plans, which are set to make life more difficult for the poorest, in a speech delivered to the richest, from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

“Assistance programs are supposed to be temporary, not permanent. A hand up, not a hand out. A bridge to independence, not a barrier,” McCarthy said, falsely claiming that the meager benefits are deterring people from working, and aren’t time-limited.

Democrats aren’t blameless for the situation. President Joe Biden failed to heed the advice of analysts who urged him to challenge the legality of the congressional cap on borrowing, which absurdly limits the financing of spending that Congress had already approved. The Biden administration even opposed litigation brought by a public sector union challenging the constitutionality of the so-called debt ceiling.

As a result of the bipartisan debt ceiling deal, which the president signed into law on June 3, the age limit will be increased on work requirements for SNAP recipients without dependents to 54 years old from 49 years old. Few will actually receive gainful employment, while many will lose critical money for food, according to research on SNAP work requirements.

Top Democrats have defended the deal by noting that it expanded eligibility to certain vulnerable populations, including the homeless. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that it’s unclear how many more people will be able to start receiving new benefits, while almost 750,000 older adults will be “at risk of losing food assistance through an expansion of the existing, failed SNAP work-reporting requirement.”

If other aspects of the debt ceiling deal are any indication, it’s likely that the net result will be fewer people receiving SNAP benefits. The legislation signed into law by President Biden includes other items on the right-wing wish list, including expedited approval for new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Nutritional benefits were once staunchly defended by the Democratic Party. SNAP traces its roots to the New Deal, when the Roosevelt administration sold food stamps to people on federal assistance during the Great Depression, allowing the purchase of surplus agriculture at a discount. The program was canceled in 1943, as the war economy boomed, but was brought back by Democratic administrations in the 1960s. In 1964, Congress passed legislation making the food stamp program permanent, at the urging of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had vowed to end poverty at the start of the year. In 1977, under President Jimmy Carter, Congress passed legislation eliminating the purchase requirement, granting food stamps to the poorest of the poor, those without any income.

But it didn’t take long for Democrats to walk back this support for poor relief. During the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, the Democratic-controlled House advanced legislation that would eventually cut funding for food stamps while reducing program eligibility. The body also approved of legislation imposing employment and training requirements on food stamp recipients, when beneficiaries previously only had to demonstrate that they were looking for work.

Then in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it,” and fulfilled his promise by signing into law Republican-backed legislation that would throw millions of people off of welfare rolls and deeper into poverty. Restrictions on food stamps supported by Clinton included work requirements and strict time limits, with the latter restricting benefits to “able-bodied adults without dependents” for three months in a three-year time period.

While the rules included in recent debt ceiling legislation won’t impact young families, WIC nonparticipation is driven by some of the same social forces that led to the recent tightening of eligibility. Studies have shown that people don’t partake in WIC despite qualifying because of state governments’ indifference to publicizing program benefits, the stigma attached to receiving assistance, and the fear of nonexisting negative consequences for receiving benefits.

The latter cause is common among Latin American immigrant communities in New York City where, according to research published by the Journal of Community Health in June 2021, rumors have circulated widely about participation leading to debt, military conscription, disqualification from college aid and retaliation from child protective services and immigration authorities.

If those who were surveyed cited such false information as a reason for nonparticipation, the study’s authors explained that they were, in fact, eligible and told them where to apply for social services. The researchers posited that Trump-era xenophobia may have helped the rumors spread, concluding that “misinformation” can fuel nonparticipation in major hunger relief programs, which is a longstanding problem.

“Since USDA started measuring eligibility data in 2000, WIC has never served more than 65 percent of those who qualify,” Dittmeier said. “That stands in stark contrast to other programs like Medicaid, which serve 90 percent of the eligible population.”

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