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‘Sequestration’ cuts would harm black, Latino babies

Khalil Abdullah

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thousands of unborn Americans have no say on whether the process of across-the-board federal budget cuts — the so-called “sequestration” — should move forward after officially going into effect last week. Although still in the womb, those infants will be among the Americans most affected by the sequestered loss of close to $700 million to the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program for lower-income families, compared to 2012 funding levels, according to a report released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The reduction in WIC funding will have an immediate impact on new African American mothers because they breastfeed less frequently than many of their peers from other groups. Latino families are also likely to be hard hit, the report said.

“Cuts to postpartum women who are not breastfeeding will fall disproportionately on African American women,” the report notes. “Cuts to children will fall disproportionately on Latino families. Latinos represent 38 percent of infants participating in WIC and 39 percent of women, but 45 percent of children.”

Unborn and breast-feeding infants

Unborn and breast-feeding infants are even more dependent on nourishment from their low-income mothers than the very young children that WIC is also designed to serve, but all rely on the program to stretch meager household food budgets.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC (formally called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) is a $7 billion program serving an estimated 9 million individuals nationwide.

The report from CBPP, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., explains that states may vary in how they choose to downsize their eligibility rolls to offset the loss of federal money. Some states may make gradual changes in managing their caseloads; others may take immediate and more dramatic actions.

Should Congress not restore funds by Sept. 30 (the end of the current fiscal year), according to the report, “based on the ways in which states are most likely to institute the cuts, we estimate that by the end of the fiscal year, the number of participants whom WIC is serving would have to be 600,000 to 775,000 women and children fewer than the program served in an average month of fiscal year 2012.”

WIC, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is usually touted as being one of the most successful intervention programs to target low-income mothers and their children. The program, however, has not been without its critics, some of whom consider it to be a corporate subsidy program for manufacturers and marketers of WIC-approved products.

The CBPP report does not address those controversies, but it does summarize 2012 USDA research showing that “WIC participation contributes to healthier births, higher intake of key nutrients, less consumption of sugar and fats and a stronger connection to preventive health care.”

Misinformation could spread

The downsizing of WIC funding was not the CBPP report’s only concern. The public’s reaction to learning about changes to WIC, depending on how each state chooses to adjust to the loss of funds, could have negative repercussions with serious health consequences.

The report states, “To be sure, most states should be able to achieve the necessary spending cuts without denying benefits to … pregnant women and infants.”

The study’s authors caution, “Once states begin denying benefits to other families, however — including non-breastfeeding women who have just given birth and children as young as one or two — misinformation is likely to spread. Some eligible women who are pregnant or have an infant may come to believe they can no longer get benefits either, and may not apply for them.”

A woman’s physical health is not only adversely affected by the lack of sufficient nutrition for herself and/or her children, but stress induces negative health consequences of its own.

“Programs like WIC that help poor families with pregnant women or very young children afford the basics,” the report states, “may help improve longer-term outcomes for children by reducing the added stress that parents or children may experience if they cannot pay their bills or do not know if there will be adequate food.”

New America Media