The state Department of Health released new income qualifying guidelines for its Women, Infants and Children program last week, a standard practice for a service that has seen its usage rates drop steadily in recent years.
“It’s kind of a little bit of a mystery because every state, every program is working on recruitment and retention of WIC participants,” said Janet Moran, who manages WIC for the state. “It’s not just Wyoming.”
WIC, as the program is typically known, is a shared state-federal service that provides nutrition and health care help to low-income women and younger children. Unlike SNAP — food stamps — WIC is focused heavily on low-income pregnant women and mothers, their young children and providing nutrition education to keep those populations healthy. WIC is more prescribed in what can be purchased with it, for instance. Moran likened it to a prescription for food, rather than a blank check.
The Health Department releasing new guidelines for who can qualify for WIC isn’t especially novel, Moran said. The federal government changes the program’s guidelines each year with the push and pull of the economy. This year, as is also typical, the guidelines for qualification have gone up. For a family of two, for instance, the income limit is $31,284 per year, about $800 more than the previous year.
The new income guidelines are:
- $23,107 per year for a family of one (up $648);
- $31,284 per year for a family of two (up $833);
- $39,461 per year for a family of three (up $1,018);
- $47,638 per year for a family of four (up $1,203);
- $55,815 per year for a family of five (up $1,388).
Moran said the program goes up to 185 percent of the poverty rate, which is also the threshold for students who qualify for free and reduced school lunch (though WIC is only available for children up to age 5). Wyomingites eligible for benefits like Medicaid, SNAP or TANF also qualify for WIC.
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What’s continuing to be a mystery for program directors like Moran is why fewer women and children are using WIC. In 2009, for instance, about 13,500 people used the program each month. In May 2019, that number had fallen to about 7,600.
It’s not because fewer women qualify, Moran said. In recent years, the number of women and children who qualify for WIC was roughly 15,000. So the state is reaching about 50 percent of those who could benefit.
Moran has a few possible explanations. For one, SNAP is easier to use than WIC, and families may elect to enroll in that instead. Another possible answer may lie in the birth rate, which has dropped in recent years — especially in light of the economic downturn that has dropped Wyoming’s overall population.
There’s the constant potential that eligible women just don’t know about WIC. Moran said the program has a presence in more than 30 communities across Wyoming. That’s not all of them, and those areas where representatives for the program do have a physical presence, they may only be there for a day or two a week.
There are indeed more people participating in SNAP than in WIC — a given, as the latter program is much more specifically targeted. But SNAP numbers are also falling. According to data from the federal government provided by Moran, the number of people using SNAP has dropped from about 44,000 in fiscal year 2016 to 34,000 in fiscal year 2019.
Moran stressed the importance of WIC, saying that one dollar spent on the program can save $3 in future health care costs. For instance, imagine a baby born below a healthy weight that needs additional care. That could be avoided, had the mother had access to proper prenatal care.
“I worry about what kind of health impacts will it have for people who are not participating and maybe not getting nutrition and health care and support with breast feeding and those things,” Moran said, “What is that going to do to overall health? WIC ... has been shown to kind of be turning the trend with childhood obesity. You worry, you wonder, ‘Gosh, what will things be like as we (continue to drop)’ – because it’s not like we necessarily have a healthier population (now).”