BOSTON — AS part of his health program President Clinton has put a priority on full funding for a federal program that helps over 40 percent of the infants born in the United States.
The president wants full funding - funds enough for all those eligible - for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The US House of Representatives has already authorized $3.2 billion for the program. WIC has provided nutritious food and nutrition education for millions of low- and moderate-income pregnant women, mothers, and children since 1972.
WIC's positive results are widely acknowledged, even earning tacit recognition from decidedly conservative observers opposed to some aspects of welfare programs. ``Some of WIC's claims for pregnant women and children are true,'' says Robert Rector, senior policy analyst for welfare at the Heritage Foundation. ``The benefits do outweigh the costs, but wanting to fund the program up into the middle class is preposterous.''
Illinois Rep. Richard Durbin (D), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, has said in Congress that WIC ``may be the most successful single program administered by the US Department of Agriculture or perhaps the federal government.''
``Over 40 percent of the infants born in the US are on the WIC program,'' says Clara French, a food program specialist for the US Department of Agriculture, ``and 1 in 4 new mothers participates.'' Average monthly participation in the program in March of l993 was 5.7 million women and children. In 1992 an estimated 8.6 million women and children were eligible.
This high level of participation stems from two factors: the increased level of poverty among children and single mothers in the US since 1972, and the effectiveness of the WIC program.
ACCORDING to studies done by the Department of Agriculture for Congress, WIC reduces infant mortality and the rates of low birthweights. ``There are fewer premature births,'' says Mary Kassler, director of the Massachusetts WIC program and president of the National WIC Association, ``and children have better overall health and nutrition. There is a decrease in the incidences of iron deficiency anemia in WIC children, and better cognitive performance in school.''
In the WIC program, women also learn how to shop for nutritious meals and how to plan meals. ``In many areas WIC is the carrot or the gateway program to other services,'' says Ms. French. ``It was the original intent of the program that individuals be referred to needed health or other services in the local area.''
WIC proponents indicate that by reducing health problems, WIC reduces long-term public costs. ``Each time one low-birthweight delivery is prevented in Massachusetts,'' concluded a 1991 report from the Massachusetts Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project, ``$20,000 to $50,000 per baby is saved in hospitalization and long-term care costs.''
Projecting savings into the future, the General Accounting Office, concluded that $296 million spent on prenatal WIC benefits in 1990 would avert $1.04 billion in health-related expenditures in the next 18 years.
``What I object to is the fact that eligibility limits [for WIC] go up to 185 percent of poverty,'' says Mr. Rector. ``When people talk about WIC being underfunded, they mean that almost everybody that is poor or near poor is already getting WIC benefits.''
An Agriculture Department study focusing on Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas - found that Medicaid-eligible women who were in WIC during pregnancy had healthier babies and lower Medicaid costs than low-income women who were not with WIC. The objective of the Clinton administration is to have WIC serve more and more eligible women and children. ``Currently we estimate that WIC serves 60 percent of the total eligible persons in the US,'' French says.
Eligibility is determined on a sliding scale based on gross household income compared to federal poverty guidelines. Based on a WIC evaluation, the woman, and/or the child, must be at nutritional risk (determined by diet history and eating habits).