WASHINGTON — THE combined efforts of Congress and President Bush are about to pay off for close to 200,000 of the most vulnerable Americans by continuing to fund crucial food subsidies. The bill awaiting President Bush's signature will affect poor pregnant mothers, infants, and children under five, who are certified by physicians as being at nutritional risk. They receive the subsidies for specific nutritious food, especially dairy products and fruit juices, through a program usually called WIC - Women, Infants, and Children.
Even critics consider it one of America's most helpful food programs.
For most Americans the increase in food prices over the past six months has meant inconvenience but not nutritional risk - more hamburger and less steak.
But for a quarter of a million of the poor the hike nearly meant cruel irony: loss of the WIC food subsidy at the very time rising prices are making food harder for them to afford.
``During the past six months cost of WIC food has gone up considerably faster'' than government had anticipated, says Dennis Bach, president of the National Association of WIC directors and director of Iowa's WIC program. Individual states administer the WIC program within their boundaries.
Mr. Bach's association discovered that 26 states no longer had enough money to subsidize the same number of people, and were beginning to cut them from the eligibility rolls. Unless the government found money, almost a quarter of a million were likely to be dropped, the association concluded.
PRESIDENT Bush's signature will enable states to retain an estimated 200,000 people in the WIC program, which now serves about 4.6 million Americans.
The president will be signing a bill sponsored by Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, permitting states to borrow up to 3 percent of next year's expected WIC appropriations, for use this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
That solves this year's problem. But what about next year, when continued government belt tightening plus this year's borrowing may again threaten to produce a WIC budget in even worse shape?
It's too early to know: White House and congressional negotiators are nowhere near deciding the dimensions of next year's overall budget, within which must fit both the expenditures for all federal programs and the revenues with which to finance them. Only after the overall budget shape is agreed upon can budgets for individual programs, such as WIC, be drawn up with any success.
One way or another America had better find the money, many WIC proponents say. They hold that WIC is less an expenditure than an investment. Aside from the morality of feeding the hungry, ``it's a lot cheaper to spend money on WIC now than to spend a lot more money later'' in higher health care costs, Bach says.
Some experts are asking another question: Was this year's borrowing-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach the best way to solve the current problem?
No, says social issues analyst Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Expenses should and could have been reduced this year rather than jeopardizing next year's program, he says.
This year's first step to that goal should have been to stop subsidizing the people who earned the most money, he says. Mr. Rector adds that Americans can be eligible for WIC even if they earn nearly twice as much as the official poverty level (185 percent of poverty, to be precise.)
Next step should have been to substitute less expensive but nutritious foods for those that cost more - ``for instance, apple juice instead of orange juice,'' he adds.
Finally, Rector says government would simultaneously save WIC expenses and give more economic help to poor working families with incomes of $10,000 or a little more if it stopped taxing them and also removed them from the WIC eligibility rolls. ``They could be much more independent if you stopped taxing their money away,'' he says.