Congress' recent efforts to balance the federal budget give new meaning to "women and children first." The $500 million cut to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to as part of last month's budget deal pushes the nation's fiscal concerns onto the shoulders of babies.
Because WIC actually reduces health care costs, it is not clear why it has been targeted for cuts. Economic analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget has shown that every $1 spent on WIC results in a savings of $1.77 to $3.13 in health care costs, primarily attributed to reduced rates of low birthweight and improved rates of immunizations. Rather than saving money, cutting WIC services may ultimately result in increased health care costs.
The scientific evidence is clear — WIC prevents low birthweight, iron deficiency and undernutrition by providing nutritious food and nutritional counseling to pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children. Children's HealthWatch (www.childrenshealthwatch.org), a collaboration of pediatric and public health providers who monitor the health of young children in five cities across the country, including Baltimore, has shown that WIC participation increases the likelihood of children being in excellent health with age-appropriate weight, height and development — necessary building blocks for avoiding expensive health care and special education costs.
Look in your grocery store for the WIC insignia, and you will see that WIC-approved foods represent the healthiest options — fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk — foods that promote healthy growth and help avert the obesity epidemic that is overtaking our nation and our children.
But WIC is not only about food. Every WIC mother receives education and counseling from WIC nutritionists — they learn to build healthy mealtime routines and to avoid negative habits, such as eating to alleviate stress or to manage behavior. By teaching healthy nutritional habits early in life, WIC supports not only babies but also families by emphasizing the nutritional skills necessary to become healthy adults.
Maryland WIC serves more than 145,000 women, infants and children every month. Using USDA's formula for states, Maryland WIC may have to cut its budget by more than $11 million. Translating dollars to babies means that approximately 11,230 fewer Maryland families will receive WIC.
Without WIC, Maryland's health care costs could skyrocket, as rates of low birthweight, iron deficiency, poor health and poor development increase. The cuts to the WIC budget may result in reduced hours of service in WIC clinics and limited availability of WIC nutritionists.
Babies and families are not the only losers in this story. Maryland grocery stores are likely to experience a loss of more than $8 million, representing the decline in available revenue for food. The impact will be felt in every corner of Maryland, with the threat of even greater reductions in next year's budget.
Babies are easy targets for budgetary reductions — they don't vote, and their cries are heard only by their families. But cutting nutritional services to babies is short-sighted, particularly during the time of rapid physical and brain growth. Nutritional deficits among babies who will not be ready to learn or earn will threaten our nation's economic health long after the current debate subsides. As our nation's future leaders, babies of today will be looking after us tomorrow and making decisions about our future and our country's future. WIC ensures that growing children will be well prepared to make wise decisions.
Maureen Black is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. David Paige is a professor in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is email@example.com.