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Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.
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(Photo: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)

As Jon Stewart has noted, the compromise federal budget just passed by Congress and signed by President Obama is full of unpleasant surprises. Among them: In a Scrooge-like Christmas gift, it cuts $93 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

So it’s both timely and ironic that a newly published research study concludes WIC doesn’t just boost the health of young children and their moms: It also plays a positive role in kids’ cognitive development.

“These findings suggest that WIC meaningfully contributes to children’s educational prospects,” Brown University sociologist Margot Jackson writes in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

"Children who receive prenatal/early childhood exposure to WIC perform significantly better on reading assignments—up to 0.3 of a standard deviation—than their siblings who do not."

WIC is a large-scale government program serving 53 percent of all infants born in the United States. It provides vouchers that are redeemed at supermarkets for healthy, nutritious food such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are eligible, as are children up their fifth birthday; parents also receive nutritional education and counseling

Jackson analyzed two sets of data. One was the birth cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed about 11,000 children from age nine months to kindergarten. It includes information on WIC participation, as well as the results of a standard test given at age two, "an assessment general mental ability that indicates problem-solving and language-acquisition skills."

The other was the Child Development Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of families. It included information on both WIC participation and the results of standard math and reading tests administered when the children were, on average, 11 years old.

Both sets of data linked participation in WIC with positive outcomes. The first showed that "prenatal/early childhood WIC exposure is associated with significantly stronger cognitive development," Jackson writes. The second provided evidence that "the benefit associated with WIC participation persists into the school years."

To reach that second conclusion, Jackson compared test scores of children from the same family, comparing those who grew up with WIC nutritional assistance with those who did not. (For a variety of reasons, some mothers do not participate in WIC until they have had at least one child.)

These within-family comparisons "suggest that children who receive prenatal/early childhood exposure to WIC perform significantly better on reading assignments—up to 0.3 of a standard deviation—than their siblings who do not," she writes. "This association is not explained by measured differences in prenatal behavior toward siblings, such as time spent reading with children or breastfeeding behavior, nor is it explained by differences in families' economic circumstances during the child's birth year."

So WIC works. Kids who ate healthier food show signs of stronger cognitive development early in life, and their later test scores prove these initial indications were not a fluke. The incoming Congress may want to keep this in mind as it draws up the next federal budget.