Skip to main content

Why Is Participation in Food Assistance Programs Like WIC Declining?

New analysis of federal data shows the largest single-year decrease in WIC's history. Participation is down in SNAP and the school lunch program too.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Zury Vizguerra, at age five months, waits while her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, shops for groceries on July 11th, 2011, in Aurora, Colorado.

Zury Vizguerra, at age five months, waits while her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, shops for groceries on July 11th, 2011, in Aurora, Colorado.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children is proven to reduce food insecurity for low-income mothers. But a new report shows that fewer Americans are applying for these benefits, which include food packages for women and children.

The analysis of federal data from the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service found that enrollment in WIC was down 6 percent in 2018—the largest single-year decrease in the program's history. The trend is even more dramatic over time, with participation down 23 percent from its peak in 2010.

Here's what we know about the decline in WIC enrollment.

Changing Economic Conditions and Demographics

Although last year's record drop is notable, WIC participation has been decreasing for years. On its face, this might seem like a positive development: Like other assistance programs, WIC is intended to help low-income women overcome food insecurity—and, according to the same report, fewer U.S. households were food-insecure in 2017 than in previous years.

Shelly Ver Ploeg, chief of the food assistance branch of the ERS, writes in an email that the agency's economists have not yet evaluated the reasons for the trend. The ERS does offer a few suggestions: In the last eight years, during which WIC participation has dropped off, overall economic conditions have improved, and U.S. birth rates have fallen.

But there are still millions of eligible people who aren't signed up. The last time the USDA published coverage rates, in 2015, less than half of eligible women were covered under WIC. Overall, about 60 percent of food-insecure households took advantage of at least one federal food assistance program last year; participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school lunch programs are also down. So why are so many people going without benefits they qualify for?

The Chilling Effect Under Trump

According to the California WIC Association, there's a clear connection to the Trump administration, which has tried to restrict food assistance across several programs: WIC representatives said they noted a drop in program participation following the 2016 election, the first travel ban, and the administration's push to add work requirements to SNAP in the farm bill.

Already, immigrant families in the U.S. are at higher risk for food insecurity. The Trump administration's proposed expansion of the "public charge" test—penalizing immigrants seeking permanent status who use public benefit programs—does not include WIC. But the policy has affected enrollment anyway.

"It's not a warm climate for getting benefits, so there's a lot of fear, and there can be confusion," Karen Farley, executive director of the California WIC Association, said in an interview with Pacific Standard last year. Although WIC is not included in the public-charge expansion, many families also receive benefits from programs that are. Local agencies have reported that families come in citing inaccurate news reports or advice from attorneys; Farley said last year that many mothers simply wanted to be removed from WIC's system.

Advocates Call for Reforms to WIC

Researchers are beginning to quantify the chilling effect, which could have a severe impact on immigrant health: A 2019 study found that SNAP participation for immigrant families decreased between 2017 and the first half of 2018, even while their employment status remained unchanged—a trend that the researchers say is likely tied to fears that receiving benefits will harm a family member's immigration status.

The Food Research & Action Center, a non-profit dedicated to fighting food insecurity, also released a report this week urging the WIC program to take steps to reduce barriers for families, which include misconceptions around eligibility, transportation costs to WIC clinics, and stigma around redeeming benefits. But as The Atlantic reported last month, these reforms are unlikely to reach the immigrant families now living in fear of deportation.