November 8 2011
Back in February, the first lady lauded the benefits of breastfeeding, saying “kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” She’s right. Breast milk is magic. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of childhood obesity, it contains vital disease-fighting antibodies critical to new babies. And, of course, there are a variety of health benefits for mothers as well.
I breastfed all three of my children, and while it wasn’t always easy, it was free and I knew my kids were getting the best food possible — the food I was designed to provide them. Did I mention it was free?
The first lady isn’t the only government official singing the praises of breastfeeding; the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC, and the office of the surgeon general endorse exclusive breastfeeding for six months, as do the leading pediatric organizations. The IRS announced in February that breast pumps and other nursing supplies could qualify for tax breaks. Similar breastfeeding incentives were included in Obamacare; requiring employers to provide “lactation breaks” to their female employees.
Why then, given all of these pro-breastfeeding statement and programs, does the Obama administration continue to support a massive entitlement program that encourages poor women to skip breastfeeding altogether and instead turn to formula for their children’s nutrition needs? Of course, tackling entitlement programs isn’t really the Obama administration’s strong suit, is it?
That entitlement program — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly called WIC) — encourages many moms to skip breastfeeding. Initiated in the mid-70s as a modest program to provide poor mothers with food assistance, the program is now a massive entitlement program that feeds 2.17 million infants a year. That’s approximately half of all infants in the United States.
Because these WIC mothers know that they have access to free formula, there’s an obvious incentive for them to go ahead and use it rather than bothering to breastfeeding — which can be more time-consuming that bottle feeding.
And in fact, only about one third of WIC mothers breast feed their babies for six months and account for between 57 and 68 percent of formula sales, which suggests that they are more likely than non-WIC moms to turn to formula. Sadly, this is the exact demographic — minorities and poor women — whose children are at highest risk for obesity, and would therefore likely benefit from breast milk the most.
Few politicians want to hazard criticism of a program like WIC, which is supposed to help just about the most sympathetic subset of society: infants and new mothers. Yet it’s important to recognize how programs like this can backfire on the intended beneficiaries.