The Next Battlefront in the War Against Women: Fighting for Congress to Fully Fund WIC (Ms. Magazine)

Abby J. Leibman
January 10, 2024

This article was originally published in Ms. Magazine on January 9, 2024.

This week, leaders in Congress agreed on a topline figure to fund the government for the next fiscal year. Yes, this is a positive step that we all hope will avoid another government shutdown that would be disastrous for all Americans, and particularly deadly for the millions of women living in poverty and facing hunger. But it is certainly no cause for celebration.

The long-overdue agreement will continue most of last year’s levels for “non-defense discretionary funding,” while providing enormous boosts for the Pentagon.

With rising costs, last year’s funding levels are not enough for federal safety net programs to meet the needs of struggling Americans. Simply put, more people need more help and they will not get it. This is particularly true among single mothers—40 percent of whom needlessly struggle with food insecurity.

This is why MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and our partners are demanding that Congress prioritize full funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

A History of Bipartisanship and Effectiveness

For decades, policymakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized the value of this highly effective program in providing vital health and nutrition benefits to pregnant women, new parents, infants and young children. That the far right in this country is now threatening this essential program is as unthinkable as it is pernicious.

WIC was one of several programs that came into being following the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health—a remarkable moment of bipartisan prioritization of anti-hunger policies, which signaled the dawning of an age of unprecedented progress against hunger and malnutrition (some of which was sadly reversed in the 1980’s). It first began as a pilot program in Kentucky, then it became a permanent government program in 1975.

One of the most central figures in the program’s establishment was the indomitable Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She brought the lived experience of women, particularly women of color, to her leadership, and against strong opposition at the time, she succeeded in establishing one of the most effective nutrition programs in the world.

Today, WIC agencies operate in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, five U.S. territories, and 33 Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs), serving the families of nearly half of all infants born in the U.S. Eligibility is based on income level and nutrition risk, and the program’s overwhelmingly positive impact is widely accepted by healthcare providers, dietitians, social workers, educators and more. Participants receive fresh fruit and vegetables, breastfeeding support, nutrition education, and healthcare screenings and referrals—all of which are essential during the critical window of early child development.

Not only is WIC proven to be effective in providing nutrition and stability, it’s also good for the economy. In fact, every dollar invested in WIC generates about $2.50 in healthcare cost savings.

So, why would some politicians refuse to fully fund this crucial nutrition program?

A New Wave of the Feminization of Poverty

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)—ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and longtime advocate of WIC—is known to not mince words. Back in September, she slammed the House Republicans’ agriculture appropriations bill, which she said “abandons the most vulnerable among us by slashing WIC. I do not believe we should practice this so-called ‘fiscal responsibility’ by taking food out of the mouths of moms and of children.”

DeLauro also noted in that same speech that House Republicans inserted “shameful political riders” into the bill “that attack women and minorities and pander to various extreme right-wing issues of the day, all while protecting billionaires and the biggest corporations.” She is referring to an outrageous policy rider in the House Republicans’ agriculture spending proposal that would ban mail delivery of the abortion pill mifepristone.

That’s right—House Republicans are trying to use the agriculture appropriations process to attack and undermine women as they continue to create a culture in which women are subject to the draconian beliefs of a reactionary minority. They have pledged to both restrict abortion access and cut nutrition assistance from low-income mothers, infants and young children—creating a new wave of the feminization of poverty.

Approaching a Looming Crisis

For months, advocates have been calling for funding boosts to meet the increased need for WIC, but House Republicans apparently would rather cut benefits—access to healthy food, breastfeeding support and more—for millions of women, babies and young children.

If House Republicans refuse to increase funds for this critical program, an estimated 2 million mothers and young children will be turned away from receiving vital nutrition assistance. For the first time in over 25 years, there will be a waiting list for WIC.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained the scope of this looming crisis, and the details of the historic waiting list, which could begin as early as March.

  • First on the waiting list would be new parents who are unable or choose not to breastfeed.
  • Then young children—both those who have been receiving WIC (whose benefits must be renewed) and those from families who are applying for the first time. In some cases, an infant might receive WIC while their parents would lose access to benefits, which include critical postpartum services.

Let’s be clear: This is nothing short of another attack on safety net programs that support women and their children—and particularly women of color, who are statistically more likely to be single mothers.

Insufficient funds for WIC will exacerbate existing disparities, particularly among low-income women and communities of color, who already face barriers to nutrition assistance as well as challenges related to healthcare, housing, employment, childcare and more. It would perpetuate a cycle of limited opportunities and risk adverse health outcomes for future generations.

It’s crucial to acknowledge these systemic and longstanding disparities facing Black, Hispanic and Indigenous women and families. Today, a shameful 12.8 percent of U.S. households face food insecurity, but the rates are truly shocking among Black families (22.4 percent), Hispanic families (20.8 percent) and Indigenous families (25 percent).

While there are some barriers to accessing programs like WIC among these communities, safety net programs are essential tools to address long-term health disparities as well. Now is the time to remove those barriers and invest in community-based organizations, culturally competent outreach and education, and other tools to ensure that programs like WIC reach all those in need.

Intersecting Challenges for Single Mothers

Challenges for mothers in America, particularly single mothers, are numerous and intersectional. We are seeing new and mounting challenges, but in many ways, it’s a story we’ve all seen before.

And some of us are living it.

At 38, I became a single mother to two traumatized children when my twin sister was murdered by her husband, and her 4-year-old and 7-year-old became my responsibility. Despite a professional career and strong support network of friends and family, there were days when I looked at the bills to pay and I cried because I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet.

The fear, the anxiety, the sorrow of single mothers cuts across race, class and culture; and the intersectionality of the biases experienced by women—race and gender, race and disability, race and immigration status, to name just a few—exacerbate that need, that fear, that anxiety, that sorrow. Because they all limit access to life-saving programs for families.

Hunger, poverty, childcare, healthcare, housing—these issues are always intertwined with gender disparities. Safety net programs like WIC, SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the child tax credit prove time and again to improve lives and local economies, yet our policymakers refuse to make real investments that would surely reverse the course of hunger in this country.

For some members of Congress—who have the power to prioritize full funding for WIC but refuse to do so—their disregard for safety net programs is another symptom of their misogyny.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) certainly comes to mind. He has made it apparent that this is a philosophy he embraces: rejecting government support for people—mostly women—and saying that you’re on your own. Although our systems create circumstances that lead many women to struggle with hunger and poverty, Johnson and his cronies are not willing to provide meaningful support to respond to the crises their economic policies have created. This strategy is clearly being led by a fundamentalist Christian notion of parenting: Women should care for children, while men work.

You simply cannot talk about programs designed to help women without acknowledging sexism and the numerous ways that House Republicans are trying to strip women of their agency and freedom. And these safety net programs do not only benefit individual women and their children—they benefit local communities and society as a whole.

In other words, supporting women is inextricably linked to the success of society.

The Fight Ahead

Over 44 million Americans (12.8 percent) struggle with food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—even more than before or during the pandemic—and the rate is staggeringly high among households headed by a single mother (33.1 percent).

Clearly, hunger in this country remains a national disgrace, and one that is all too female in nature. The “feminization of poverty” not only persists in this country—it is growing. Women dominate service sector jobs, which are historically undervalued and underpaid. Affordable childcare remains elusive (and now under threat).

We need the political will of our nation’s leaders to pursue robustly funded national policies that feed the hungry while strategically addressing the systemic social inequities rooted in hunger, including those born of systemic sexism and racism.

With the topline funding agreement announced this week, our leaders in Congress have finally taken a tiny step toward doing their most basic job: keeping the federal government open. Again, this is hardly a victory. We should not have to beg lawmakers to fund federal programs that curb hunger, improve birth outcomes, reduce infant mortality, and promote healthy growth and child development. But we must, because we cannot stand by while millions of American families face hunger and hardship.

So, we will continue to fight for programs that we know will reverse the course of hunger in this country—programs like WIC, SNAP and the child tax credit. Beyond the ongoing government funding debacle, we will fight for key improvements in the next Farm Bill to support better and more equitable policies for communities facing historical and ongoing injustice—like Indigenous communities and the people of Puerto Rico, as well as those facing specific barriers to support, like military families.

We will stand with our partners across faith traditions and political divides, calling on those in power to show true leadership, compassion and wisdom. We will pursue policies that respect the inherent dignity of every person because regardless of circumstance, every person must be able to feed themselves and their families.