WIC program saw widespread declines during the pandemic

Participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) saw widespread declines during the pandemic, continuing a trend that took hold over the past decade due to significant enrollment hurdles.

The declines contrasted with the sharp rise in demand for programs like SNAP and Medicaid, even as advocates hoped that rising need, along with new waivers and flexibilities for WIC, would boost enrollment in the nutrition program for families.

A report released last week by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) showed that WIC rolls increased by just 2 percent nationally from February 2020 to February 2021; in 31 states, participation declined or grew by less than the 2 percent national rate. The CBPP analysis echoes a report released earlier this year by the Food Research & Action Center.

WIC participation has declined steadily in the past decade. Even as more Americans sought federal benefits during the pandemic, the program didn’t see the same enrollment increase that SNAP and Medicaid did, the CBPP report found — even though families eligible for those programs automatically qualify for WIC. This discrepancy was true before the pandemic as well; research from 2018 and 2019 showed that between 44 percent and 63 percent of WIC-eligible individuals enrolled in Medicaid and SNAP, but not in WIC.

And while Medicaid enrollment grew 14 percent between February 2020 and January 2021, and SNAP grew 14 percent between January 2020 and February 2021, WIC grew by just 4 and 2 percent, respectively, during those periods.

WIC enrollment typically requires in-person visits to local clinics, making it a more time-intensive commitment than other benefits programs. This requirement has depressed participation over the past decade, particularly as new moms returned to professional life at rising rates. When the pandemic hit, the program began allowing participants to register for benefits and receive counseling over the phone. According to Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the CBPP and one of the report’s authors, states that saw declines or struggled to expand enrollment in line with rising need were plagued by outdated systems ill-equipped to make use of these pandemic-era flexibilities. In those states, families that had previously found it difficult to sign up for benefits — because they lacked transportation to a clinic, for example — faced heightened barriers during the pandemic, including fear of infection.

“Electronic benefit systems are complex, and they can’t be changed overnight,” Neuberger said. “It’s been particularly challenging for states whose EBT systems don’t yet allow for benefits to be added to cards online.”

Neuberger suspects that other factors limited the program’s expected expansion during the pandemic. “Particularly early in the pandemic, some states were able to get the word out more quickly than others that WIC was providing critical food assistance and services even when clinics were closed,” she explained, meaning some families might not have even known they could register remotely. In other cases, WIC resources might have been channeled into other public health efforts, and staffing may have been a concern, she said.

Whereas other assistance programs more seamlessly transitioned to remote access — or already offered alternatives to in-person registration prior to the pandemic — WIC has long operated differently. Because WIC combines food benefits with support and counseling for pregnant women and new mothers, individual follow-ups between staff and families are considered integral to the program, making it harder to shift away from in-person visits. That sense of community and support is one of the program’s assets, Neuberger said, but shouldn’t undermine its effectiveness in extraordinary circumstances.

“Low-income families should be able to get help from WIC even when they can’t make the trip to a WIC clinic,” she added. “During the pandemic, WIC — which used to rely heavily on in-person services — began offering remote services. Now policymakers must ensure that critical changes like this remain in place even after the COVID-19 waivers expire.”

The pandemic made clear the urgency of modernizing WIC—and of increasing benefit amounts to make the program more attractive to in-need families. The Biden administration, through the American Rescue Plan, pledged $390 million toward modernizing the program — and also provided additional funds to temporarily raise WIC benefits, increasing the current monthly allotment for fruits and vegetables from between $9 and $11 to $35; those enhanced benefits expire in September. Beyond increasing the dollar amount, maintaining and generalizing remote appointments — and making sure eligible families know what services are available — would help improve participation.

“The need to update WIC to reach more eligible families and children certainly predates the pandemic,” Neuberger said. “The pandemic has just made it all the more clear that WIC must be modernized and simplified to help families.”