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WASHINGTON — More than 225,000 low-income Texas women and young children are in danger of losing federal nutrition assistance as Congress battles over government funding, activists and the White House warn.
In Texas, nearly 800,000 pregnant women and children under 5 years old rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, which helps low-income families access tools to boost infant nutrition. That includes nutrition counseling, help with breastfeeding, fresh produce and other nutrition assistance.
The program needs an estimated $1 billion in extra funding to serve all eligible clients for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September, according to the White House. It has historically been a popular, bipartisan priority among lawmakers. Over 790,000 Texans participate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only California has more participants.
But the program is caught in the crossfire as Congress struggles to pass legislation to fund the government, especially as WIC’s costs grow. Without additional funding, about 227,000 Texans could be turned away from the program next year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“For 25 years, it has been a no-brainer on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. There has been bipartisan support available for every eligible person who applies for it,” Neera Tanden, director of the Domestic Policy Council, told reporters. “In a country as wealthy as ours, there is no reason states should be forced to implement waiting lists or take other devastating measures.”
Congress has been months behind on passing legislation to keep the government funded. To buy itself time, it has passed a series of continuing resolutions that keep money flowing at previous levels for a few months at a time. The next continuing resolution expiration date is Jan. 19, which would end funding for WIC unless new funding legislation gets passed.
But even if Congress passes new funding legislation by then, there is no guarantee it will include the extra $1 billion to keep WIC operating fully through September. Congress declined to include the White House’s $1 billion request in the past two continuing resolutions.
The program’s costs have increased in recent years, with growing costs of food and greater participation following the COVID-19 pandemic. Failure to fully fund the program will force states to find alternative ways to make ends meet. In most cases, that would mean wait lists and turning away eligible participants.
Texas is unlikely to start slashing funds in the immediate term. The last continuing resolution directed USDA to send states money at normal levels for now to delay any disruptions to services.
But that means money can’t be saved for later months, possibly leading to drastic cuts to services later if new money doesn’t get appropriated. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates about 227,000 people could get turned away from the program in September if the additional $1 billion doesn’t get appropriated. About 13% of Texas households are food insecure. It is one of only nine states above the national average of 12.8%, according to USDA.
“With every continuing resolution, moms have less certainty about whether Congress is going to fully cover WIC for themselves and their babies this year,” Xochitl Torres Small, deputy secretary of agriculture, said in a press call. “The longer Congress puts off this funding, there’s a greater risk to mothers, babies and children who just want the healthy food they need.”