How WIC Works

The WIC program is designed to ensure that women and their children get the nutrition they need.

Since the early 1970s, many low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women have been able to take care of themselves and their infants and young children with help from a United States government program called WIC. The acronym stands for the women, infants and children whom it targets.

WIC was born as a 1972 amendment to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. The aim of the program was, and still is, to provide healthy nutritional assistance to the people it serves. It's based on a simple idea: Pregnant women who follow good nutrition practices have healthy babies, while malnourished pregnant women may have babies with low birth weights, poor nutrition or other physical ailments.


Each year, the U.S. Congress sets aside a certain amount of funds, and the Food and Nutrition Service (which operates the grant program at a federal level) distributes those funds to state agencies. The money pays for WIC foods, nutrition, education for the mothers and costs to keep it running.

The funds are distributed through checks that can be exchanged for certain foods. Remember, WIC is for pregnant women, infants and children, so the foods are limited to things like cereal, milk and juice, as well as iron-fortified formula, eggs, cheese, peanut butter, and dried peas and beans. Mothers who breastfeed their babies may potentially receive more food, like raw carrots and canned tuna.

In this article, we'll tell you what it takes to qualify for benefits and talk about some new healthy additions that are part of a large overhaul to the program, targeted at getting women and children to eat more healthfully.


Who Qualifies for WIC?

Children may continue to receive WIC benefits until they're 5 years old, as long as they meet the necessary financial qualifications.

Qualifying for WIC can be surprisingly easy. Many women have automatic income eligibility based on their participation in other programs that provide low-income assistance, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

WIC also benefits people defined as being a nutrition risk. That definition must be provided by a health-care professional, and it essentially means that the person has either a medical or a dietary condition, such as anemia, a poor diet, low weight or a history of miscarriage. Agencies prioritize these people, as organizations sometimes don't have enough money to supply all eligible applicants with assistance. The most high-risk eligible applicants are served first.


All applicants enrolled in these programs must meet certain criteria and live in the state where they apply. The criteria typically hinge on income and target women who are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is determined by the number of family members in a home and the amount of income brought into the home. For a family of four, that number was $41,348 through June 2012 [source: USDA Food & Nutrition Service].

Single mothers are eligible, as are single fathers with children under the age of 5 and grandparents who have custody or guardianship over eligible children.

A pregnant woman can receive benefits to keep herself healthy for the duration of her pregnancy. Once her child is born, if the woman is breastfeeding, she can continue to receive benefits for herself and her child for up to a year. Children can get benefits up until they reach 5, as long as the income qualifications remain the same. For mothers, after their child celebrates their first birthday, benefits are cut off.

The program urges women to breastfeed, and WIC provides breast pumps to women as a means to encourage them to continue breastfeeding once they return to school or work, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Statistics from the government agency show that infants who are not breastfed are more likely to suffer from infections and conditions like allergies, asthma and diabetes. Breastfeeding also may increase the bond between mother and child [source: USDA: Benefits and Services].

Next we'll take a look at the numbers. How many people get it, how many people could receive benefits and how much money is spent on the WIC program? Read more to find out.


WIC by the Numbers

The volume of people who are eligible for WIC benefits is staggering, as is the amount of money spent on the program throughout the years.

  • In 1975, around 17 million people received WIC benefits, which amounted to roughly $4.6 billion. Since that time, the program costs have gone up, but the number of participants has fluctuated.
  • In 1985, there were 19.9 million recipients who cost nearly $12 billion.
  • In 1995, there were 26.6 million recipients which cost around $24.6 billion.

[source: WIC Numbers]


In 2003, more than 13,468,545 infants and children were eligible to participate in WIC but only 7,684,365 people actually did, according to the Food and Nutrition Service, which means that a little more than 57 percent of the people who were eligible to receive the benefits actually did.

According to a 2002 federal study, Hispanics made up the largest part of the ethnic groups receiving WIC (roughly 38 percent), followed by whites (36 percent), blacks (20 percent) and others: Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan Native(at 5 percent).

A report released in 2010 by the USDA said the Fiscal Year 2009 WIC budget was $6.86 billion and the Fiscal Year 2010 WIC budget was $7.25 billion [source: USDA]. In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed an additional $10 billion for child nutrition programs to be distributed over 10 years. The additional funding is aimed at ending childhood hunger, reducing childhood obesity and improving the diets of children [source: Concannon]. The additions to the budget were part of the president's goal of ending childhood hunger over a five-year period.

Over the years, there have been some changes to the WIC program. Keep reading to find out about scams involving the program and healthy new alternatives that have recently become available.


WIC in the News

The WIC program has undergone an overhaul, allowing new foods such as tofu.

The Women, Infants and Children program has been in the news recently due to people gaming the system. The biggest scams perpetrated in the WIC program have to do with fraud.

In Cleveland, Ohio, a man was sentenced to federal prison for stealing millions of dollars worth of WIC money by fraudulently redeeming food stamp coupons and WIC vouchers [source: Byrne]. In Philadelphia, several people were arrested for creating fake WIC vouchers and stealing more than $375,000 of taxpayers' money [source: Odom]. And in New Jersey, a man was sentenced to prison after printing more than $1 million of WIC vouchers and selling them [source: Rispolo].


On the brighter side, the program recently had its first overhaul in 30 years, and now allows the purchase of not just milk and peanut butter, but also fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the new additions are not limited to fruits and veggies, but will also add soy beverages and tofu. In order to allow for the additions and not break the program budget, the amount of things like juice and cheese have been lowered, although the amount allowed is still in line with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Supplements come in the form vouchers with a cash value of around $6 for each child and $10 for a breastfeeding mother [source: Koch].

See the links on the next page to feed your hunger for more information on the WIC program and other replated topics.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Byrne, Brian. "Strongsville resident sentenced following IRS investigation for theft and fraud." Aug. 25, 2010. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • Concannon, Kevin. "Statement of Kevin Concannon Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services." U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nov. 29, 2011. (Dec. 25, 2011)
  • Koch, Wendy. "WIC program adds healthier mix of foods." Oct. 14, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • Odom, Vernon. "Six charged in WIC fraud scheme." Oct. 15, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • Oliveria, Victor; Racine, Elizabeth; Olmsted, Jennifer and Ghelfi, Linda M. "The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Issues." October 2002. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • Rispolo. Michael. Former Newark employee sentenced in $1M scam of WIC program. The Star-Ledger. Feb. 23, 2009. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Oversight of the Recovery Act WIC Contingency Funds Audit." April 2010. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service."Benefits and Services: Breastfeeding Promotion and Support in WIC." (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service. "How to Apply: WIC Income Eligibility Guidelines 2011-2012." Nov. 30, 2011. (Dec. 25, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. "WIC Program Coverage: How Many Eligible Individuals Participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): 1994-2003?" Aug. 23, 2010. (Dec. 18, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service. "Woman, Infants and Children." Oct. 5, 2010. (Dec. 18, 2011)