Sour Milk


If you’ve ever gone shopping in the baby food aisle at the grocery store you’ll notice on some price stickers with the letters WIC. That’s not a brand of baby formula but a mark of approved products for beneficiaries of the government’s third biggest food-assistance programs. WIC stands for Women Infants and Children.

The law that created the program is up for reauthorization and baby formula companies are joining the battle to see it scaled back. These companies say that they are offering their products at steep discounts to families who could afford to buy products for babies without government intervention.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for the WIC program is a $6 billion-a-year program, which provides food vouchers and other services to pregnant women and their kids. The program is dispensed through federal grants to states, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk according to the government’s website. Recipients can shop for approved eggs, cheese, bread, and formula.

The beneficiaries of the program are supposed to be poor and in need of help.To qualify for WIC benefits, recipients must make less than 185 percent of the poverty level or $44,100 for a family of four. You can also automatically qualify if you participate in Medicaid, the health program for the poor.

During the Recession the Obama Administration expanded many federal assistance programs including WIC, causing the program to enroll a high of 9.2 million participants in 2010. The program has scaled back to 8.3 million women and children now.

Because of that expansion, a lot of people of qualifying as poor, but do they really need the help? It’s odd that a family of four in Iowa making $89,400 could qualify for WIC benefits because they meet the state’s Medicaid eligibility threshold.

How many “poor” families who can afford to purchase food for themselves are taking advantage of this benefit, while other families are going without food?

The three biggest formula companies are especially concerned since they offer deep discounts – 92 percent below wholesale prices on average-to secure state contracts to provide their products for recipients. They’re now feeling the pain of lost revenue from taking in less than market value and customers who could afford to buy their products getting them for free. They want the government to tighten up

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The discounts have amounted to more than $28 billion since 1997, according to one formula maker’s estimate. The nation’s other big formula makers are Abbott Laboratories, maker of Similac, and Nestlé SA, maker of Gerber Good Start.

To qualify for WIC vouchers, recipients have to make less than 185% of the poverty level—or $44,100 for a family of four. But people automatically qualify for WIC if they also participate in Medicaid, the health program for the poor, where eligibility is set by the states. A Wall Street Journal analysis of Medicaid benefits showed that 36 states provide benefits to infants whose families’ incomes exceed WIC requirements.

Mead Johnson, based in Illinois, has been urging lawmakers to look closely at these income thresholds. A study commissioned by the company found that as many as one-fifth of WIC recipients make more money than the program’s threshold, while the U.S. Agriculture Department puts the figure at 1.5% of recipients.

Republicans say it is too early to talk about specific changes to the law but note that all components of the program are up for review.

Meantime, advocates for the poor say the formula company is overstating the problem.

Following the Recession, the Administration expanded eligibility to help struggling families out of work. However, the economy has rebounded – even if it’s still weak in some areas. Why hasn’t this program been scaled back accordingly? Either it’s a lack of confidence in the same economy that the President likes to take credit for or the intention was to expand the program with no expectation of scaling back down the line.

If the latter is the case, that demonstrates an irresponsible use of public resources and sets an expectation that we’re not really caring for the poor but giving freebies away to whomever wants them.

We don’t want children to go hungry, but we also don’t want taxpayers to pick up the tab for people who can afford to buy baby formula on their own. The government also should not be in the business of teaching people that they aren’t responsible for their children. We’re fine with helping people in genuine need on a temporary basis. But it is time to re-evaluate this aspect of the WIC infant formula program.  

Congress and federal agencies are the stewards of our public dollars. They ought to use those funds wisely and act with common sense. There’s no common sense in giving to those for free the goods they can afford to purchase for themselves.