As a (currently) nursing mother, I have a few comments to add on the topic of Michelle Obama’s new effort to promote breastfeeding.  I’m constantly surprised by the regularity with which the Obamas find fault with big business.  In this case, it is the hospitals that have failed to provide enough information to new mothers; its employers failing to call a carpenter to start work on that brand new breastfeeding/pumping room. 

What the first lady doesn’t want to talk about is the government’s current position on breastfeeding which is simple: don’t do it.  That’s right, government policies and programs work against the first lady’s pro-breastfeeding message. The WIC program-which provides poor and middle class families with free formula-is one of these programs.  Chris Edwards over at CATO has done a lot of work on this topic and he summarizes the government doublespeak on breastfeeding: 

An even more troubling aspect of WIC is that it encourages parents to feed their babies infant formula rather than breast milk. The share of mothers on WIC who are breastfeeding is substantially lower than that of mothers not using WIC.  That effect runs directly counter to the universal advice of health care experts regarding the superiority of breast milk for child development. The WIC program results in low-income parents substituting less nutritious formula for more nutritious mother’s milk. 

Edwards also explores the impact this huge government program has on the market for formula and how it affects the price of formula for those who don’t get the WIC subsidy. 

Another troubling aspect of WIC is that the program’s large subsidies for infant formula appear to be driving up the retail price. The price of formula has risen rapidly since the early 1980s as WIC enrollment has increased.  Because recipients are not sensitive to the pricing of WIC food items such as formula, stores can raise prices and receive larger cash redemptions from state agencies. 

The WIC program drives up the cost of formula for families not on the program as well, and some portion of the taxpayer subsidies for WIC ends up going to the makers of infant formula. This “leakage” of benefits is a common problem in subsidy programs. It is thought, for example, that rising government subsidies for college education have helped spur the rapid inflation in college tuition costs.

Edwards then explains why the program-despite its negative impacts on society-will never be repealed.  He highlights the program’s deeply entrenched political connections: 

Given WIC’s perverse effects, will it be repealed? Unfortunately, like nearly all subsidy programs, WIC has spawned an entrenched group of interests that lobby against reforms. A key WIC lobby group is the National WIC Association, which represents the 2,000 state and local government agencies that administer WIC.  

The association drafts studies on the supposed importance of WIC, advocates its positions to federal policymakers, and holds conferences in Washington. The group’s 2006 legislative agenda was entitled “WIC at RISK! A Healthy, Strong America in Jeopardy!” The document recommended program funding increases and predicted dire consequences if policymakers didn’t go along. 

We’ve seen this doublespeak before from the first lady. While complaining about the quality of school lunches, she remains silent on farm subsidies-the very thing that provides schools with the extra farm commodities (otherwise known as the gross things kids eat these days) that are eventually served to children.  She endorses the newly reorganized food pyramid which instructs Americans to cut down on high-fat meat but says nothing when the USDA buy $14 million of high-fat, dark meat chicken (to help chicken producers facing a glut in stocks and decreasing prices) to be sent to food banks and schools.  She complains about high fructose corn syrup, yet fails to find time to address why the U.S. government keeps the price of cane sugar artificially high.  While beating up on the restaurant industry for serving Americans tasty food, she turns a blind eye to her husband’s administration spending millions of taxpayer dollars on ads to encourage Americans to eat more high-fat cheese (and items that contain cheese, like pizza).

If Michelle Obama really wants to do something to encourage breastfeeding, she’ll speak out against government programs that discourage it.