Late last night the federal government shut down its “nonessential” services as Congressional Republicans continued their attempt to undermine the health care reform law President Obama signed in 2010. The default mode on Capitol Hill these days tends toward paralysis and partisan strife, so pretty much everyone saw this coming.
The worst hit, at first glance, seem to be tourists — attractions under the purview of the National Park Service have closed for the time being — and federal employees who will have to stay home from work while their livelihoods are used as a political football, again. The Washington, D.C. city government, long maligned as incompetent, took forward-thinking steps to insulate itself from federal-level dysfunction. Most social assistance programs are safe for now.
But there is one program in serious danger: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides funds for healthy food, counseling and health care referrals to pregnant women, mothers and children under the age of five. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, research shows that the program is proven to ensure better health, nutrition and care services: “It is widely regarded as one of the most effective of all social programs.”
Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, released a memo summarizing the effects of a federal shutdown on food service programs. School lunches and food stamps are in the clear, at least through October. Not so for WIC:
No additional federal funds would be available to support the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)’s clinical services, food benefits and administrative costs. States may have some funds available from infant formula rebates or other sources, including spend forward authority, to continue operations for a week or so, but States would likely be unable to sustain operations for a longer period. Contingency funds will be available to help States – but even this funding would not fully mitigate a shortfall for the entire month of October.
WIC serves 9 million Americans, including 250,000 Pennsylvanians, according to the state Department of Health. Of those, more than a fourth are Philadelphians. (DoH reports 70,000 city residents on WIC rolls, although the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger — using data from August 2012 — lists 61,659.)
“We are getting calls from people, everybody is in shock, and no one knows what to expect from local services,” said Carol Goertzel, president and CEO of Pathways PA, an advocacy group for low-income women and children. “We have not heard anything [from the city or the state]. So many of the moms we work with depend on WIC for their infants.”
Calls to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s press office were not returned by publication time. The non-profit NORTH, INC. manages the 18-site WIC program in Philadelphia, but could not comment about the state of the program post-shutdown. (Weirdly, it has an even smaller number of participants listed: 49,000.)
Philly’s WIC office did reassure its followers on Facebook, posting, “We want to notify you that all Philadelphia WIC offices WILL be open for business as usual October 1st and will remain open until further notice.”
Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration does not have a strong track record when it comes to maintaining social protections and public programs, especially those that serve low-income people. But the Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that the state is ready to take on this particular responsibility (the state received $208 million in WIC funds from the feds in fiscal year 2013).
“The Pennsylvania Department of Health does not foresee any direct, immediate impacts to the Pennsylvania WIC program due to the federal government shut down,” Aimee Tysarczyk, press secretary for the Department of Health, wrote in an email. “Our WIC offices are open and vital services are continuing.”
It is unclear, as of publication, what the state plan for a longer-term shutdown would look like, but the answer will be essential to Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities. According to a recent report from the city itself, 27 percent of Philadelphia’s children live in poverty and over the last couple years vulnerable people in the city have been hit by waves of cuts at the local, state and federal level. For now, it appears that Pennsylvania will not have to add WIC to that shameful list.
“They [the Department of Health] are saying all the right things, but it depends state by state on how much contingency funding they have,” said Kathy Fisher, director of family economic security programs for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “It’s possible the feds could come through with a little extra money, but none of that is determined yet.”
When asked about the Department of Health’s plans for a protracted shutdown, Tysarczyk emailed: “We are working closely with the governor’s office and the USDA to determine any potential long-term impacts and next steps. We recognize that WIC is a vital program to many in Pennsylvania and our focus is and will continue to be on protecting the health and well-being of our citizens and trying to minimize disruptions to the extent possible.”
This post will be updated to reflect additional information from advocates, participants, the city or the state.
Jake Blumgart is a contributing writer at Next City. His work also appears regularly in Al Jazeera America, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pacific Standard.