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WIC Enrollment Is Down, Creating A 'Catch-22'

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Hanifa Nakiryowa of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation says that just half of eligible Pennsylvanians enroll in WIC

A recent analysisby the Pittsburgh-based Jewish Healthcare Foundation finds that just 50 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians receive assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

WIC provides food assistance to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and kids up to age five. The program’s aim is to provide a solid nutritional foundation to children during critical stages of development.

Hanifa Nakiryowa, the JHF’s global health associate and co-lead researcher of the WIC analysis, said enrollment both in Pennsylvania and nationally has declined over the past decade. This hurts WIC funding, which comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as it is based on enrollment.

“That means if our participation is dropping, then the federal government funding that comes to the state is also dropping, which affects the program,” she said. “Eventually it causes a Catch-22 situation where if we have less funding then it also affects further enrollment.”

There’s no clear-cut answer for why WIC enrollment is down, but Nakiryowa said part of it is the program is stigmatized because it’s associated with poverty.

“But I don’t necessarily have to be poor to qualify for WIC,” said Nakiryowa. “Any mother is eligible for WIC, if I'm eligible for Medicaid… Plus, I don't have to be just a biological mother for me to access WIC for my children. I can be the father, I can be the grandfather, I can be the foster parent, I can be the caregiver of that child and I can go to the WIC office and access those services.”

Nakiryowa’s analysis found that states that are doing better than Pennsylvania with WIC participation use Medicaid as a pathway to the program.

Some parts of Pennsylvania are finding ways to increase WIC participation. Nakiryowa cited Maternal and Family Health Services, a Scranton-based non-profit, which helps women get connected to WIC as part of programming that includes addiction treatment, pregnancy care and breastfeeding education.

WIC, said Nakiryowa, might also be part of the solution to address infantand maternal mortality rates. In Allegheny County, black infants are more than four times as likely to die than white infants

“We have evidence … to prove that the WIC program actually improves infant health outcomes. But nothing around maternal health outcomes,” she said “But we understand that the WIC program channels through the mother to reach the child."

That means, if a mother is healthy because of WIC, her children are more likely to be healthy too.

WESA receives funding from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.