Shutdown jeopardizes nutrition program
Advocates worry for 9 million women and children
Patricia Jones, 34, center, is hugged by her 4-year-old daughter Pashalae Armstrong, 4, center left, while talking to The Associated Press outside of her home in Newark, N.J., with her other children, Nature Harris, 15, top, and Latrell Armstrong, 2, right. Jones was denied getting a proof printout of Harris' disability to apply for government aid because the shutdown has closed her local social security office. Like millions of other low-income women, Jones relies on the federal Women, Infants and Children program to pay for infant formula _ a program that's now jeopardized by the federal government shutdown. New Jersey and other states say they have enough money to operate the program for another few weeks, but advocates worry what will happen next. AP photo
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Jacob Quick is a fat and happy 4-month-old with a big and expensive appetite. Like millions of other poor women, Jacob’s mother relies on the federal Women, Infants and Children program to pay for infant formula — aid that is now jeopardized by the government shutdown.
“What’s going to happen to my baby?” asked Jacob’s mother, Cierra Schoeneberger, as she fed him a bottle of formula bought with her WIC voucher. “Am I going to have to feed him regular milk, or am I going to have to scrounge up the little bit of change I do have for formula or even baby food?”
WIC serves nearly 9 million mothers and young children, providing what advocates say is vital nutrition that poor families might otherwise be unable to afford.
Schoenberger, for example, said her son goes through about $40 worth of formula a week. “It’s like a car payment,” said the unemployed mother of three.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — better known as WIC — supplies low-income women with checks or debit cards that can be used for infant formula and cereal, fruits and vegetables, dairy items and other healthy food. WIC also provides breast-feeding support and nutrition classes. Poor women with children under 5 are eligible.
Just before the shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had warned that states would run out of WIC cash after a “week or so.” Now the agency says WIC should be able to provide benefits through late October, with states using $100 million in federal contingency money released Wednesday and $280 million in unspent funds from the last budget year.
“These mothers have trust and confidence in this program, and that trust and confidence has been shaken by Congress,” said the Rev. Douglas A. Greenaway, head of the National WIC Association, an advocacy group. “This is just unconscionable.”
Advocates are also worried that there will be a cumulative effect as other, smaller government feeding programs run out of money.
Adding to the uncertainty: While USDA has said that food stamps are guaranteed to continue through October, it is unclear what will happen after that.
Utah’s WIC program immediately closed its doors Tuesday in the wake of the government shutdown, meaning that families who hadn’t already received their October vouchers were out of luck and new applications couldn’t be processed. The state got $2.5 million in USDA funding on Thursday, and WIC offices throughout the state planned to reopen by noon Friday.
Food banks, meanwhile, are bracing for a surge in requests for help if WIC runs out of money.
Linda Zimmerman, executive director of Neighbors In Need, which runs 11 food banks in Massachusetts, said her organization already provides a lot of baby formula to its clients, most of whom get WIC aid as well.
“I think they’re truly nervous,” Zimmerman said. “We’re going to have to be doing a lot of work to make sure we can keep up with need for infant formula.”
In some places, grocery stores refused to honor WIC vouchers, assuming they wouldn’t get paid. Terry Bryce, director of Oklahoma’s WIC program, said WIC officials called and emailed grocers to assure them the program is still funded.
In New Jersey, Patricia Jones said she is worried about losing her WIC assistance.
“You’re affecting families that haven’t done anything to you,” said Jones, a 34-year-old mother of five. Because of the shutdown, she was turned away from the Social Security Administration office in Newark when she tried to get printouts of her children’s Social Security numbers to renew her welfare and WIC benefits.