WIC: A Proven Program, With Long-Term Payoffs
As researchers learn more about how hardship early in life can shape kids’ future, it’s important to understand which interventions can help all kids have the same opportunities — no matter where or to whom they’re born. WIC does just that.
As we explained in a report, WIC is a proven program with a long track record of making sure that kids get a healthy start, with long-term payoffs.
WIC — formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and referrals to health care and social services to more than 8 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children.
Evidence continues to mount that lack of adequate food, stable housing, health care, and other essentials in infancy and early childhood can affect children's brain development, with long-term consequences for their well-being. Four decades of research shows that WIC contributes to positive developmental and health outcomes for low-income women and young children.
In particular, WIC participation is associated with:
- Healthier births. Prenatal participation in WIC helps mothers give birth to healthier infants with higher birth weights. WIC participation also helps reduce infant mortality. For example, a recent Ohio study found lower infant mortality among WIC participants than non-participants — especially among African Americans, where the infant mortality rate for WIC participants was half that for non-participants.
- More nutritious diets. Strong evidence suggests that WIC participation increases infants’ and children's intakes of some essential vitamins and minerals. As a result, WIC has helped reduce iron deficiency and anemia. Mothers participating in WIC are also likelier to follow recommended infant feeding practices, like delaying the introduction of cow’s milk until a baby turns 1. And the percentage of infants participating in WIC who were breastfed rose by 39 percent between 2000 and 2012. In addition, the Agriculture Department’s 2009 revisions to the WIC food package to encourage healthier eating boosted participants’ consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. WIC may also have contributed to the recent halt in the rise in obesity among low-income preschool children.
- Stronger connections to preventive health care. Low-income infants and children who participate in WIC receive health care referrals and are much likelier to receive appropriate preventive and curative care. For example, low-income children participating in WIC are just as likely to be immunized as more affluent children — and much more likely than low-income children not participating in WIC.
- Improved cognitive development. New research links prenatal participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic achievement. Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age 2 than similar children whose mothers did not participate. Moreover, the benefit persisted into the school years, as children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant performed better on reading assessments.
WIC is a proven, cost-effective investment. Due to the research documenting WIC’s effectiveness, Administrations and Congresses of both parties have provided sufficient funding since 1997 to ensure that WIC can serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply for it — and that’s a precedent that should continue. As Congress reauthorizes WIC this year, it should ensure that the program remains strong and accessible to eligible low-income families.