How WIC Works

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.
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.