Formula shortage exposes familiar weakness in our safety net
Screengrab from an Ohio Department of Health video of a woman consulting a list of food items she is able to purchase with WIC benefits.
Last week, the Ohio Department of Health requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allow greater flexibility in its social assistance programs around baby formula.
The program the Ohio Department of Health is most interested in is the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, one of the nation’s most important nutritional programs.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, over 38,000 Ohio women receive WIC benefits per month. These benefits go on to feed over 55,000 infants and over 70,000 children every month.
WIC works differently than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). While SNAP gives a dollar allotment, WIC gives women a list of foods they are allowed to purchase, much like a rationing system. Women who receive WIC are given a card by the state that they can then use to purchase “authorized foods” and then are asked to refer to a pamphlet detailing these authorized foods when shopping.
The national baby formula shortage is exposing a flaw in the WIC program design. WIC accounts for about half of all formula purchases in the United States, but WIC vouchers generally only allow purchase of one brand of baby formula. This means that if that one provider of baby formula stops producing formula, millions of families across the country suddenly have nowhere to turn to for food for their infants.
Congress has acted quickly to fix this problem with the program and last weekend President Biden signed a bill to expand access to new types of formula. But why does it take an act of Congress for a key nutritional program to provide the most common source of nutrition for infants during a time of crisis?
If you haven’t picked up on this by now, there is a lot of handholding that comes with the WIC program. While WIC provides $140 million in funding for food and nutrition education per year for Ohio families, it also puts strict limits on what can be bought, with the good intention of delivering healthful foods to families.
Contrast this with the Child Tax Credit, a program that provides families with a cash stipend to buy whatever they need to support their family—no strings attached, no reporting.
While WIC is ostensibly the more direct way to support nutrition in families, it was not flexible enough to deal with a quite predictable nutrition problem—a formula shortage—without a Congressional redesign of the program. A recipient of the Child Tax Credit, on the other hand, could spend their dollars on new formula right away if one formula becomes more expensive or runs out.
The formula shortage is a national problem, but more individual problems are happening every day. A bus pass to get to a job across town. Fees for child care expenses. An overdue rent payment. These are all things WIC can’t buy.
This isn’t to say WIC is worse than the alternative of no program at all. But we run the risk of thinking we know more than we do about the future and plight of individual families when we design a program to be as prescriptive as WIC is.
Maybe in the future we will have a safety net that trusts families to make their own decisions. Maybe then we will have a safety net that doesn’t require acts of cabinet-level state officials and congressional dealmaking to allow access to the basic resources needed for survival in the face of an all-too-predictable crisis.
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