Millions of the country’s most vulnerable women and children could lose their nutrition benefits as early as next week, according to the Biden administration. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program—which serves pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding mothers and their children under the age of 6—would run out of federal funding if the government shuts down this weekend.
“The vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that’s provided would not be available,” Vilsack warned.
Republicans dismiss the warning as overblown rhetoric, putting low-income mothers and their children in the middle of this game of shutdown chicken.
With Congress unlikely to pass a measure temporarily extending government funding before it runs out at midnight on September 30, a shutdown appears unavoidable, and low-income households with young children will feel the effects almost immediately.
Vilsack told reporters on Monday that the USDA has a “contingency fund” that may continue WIC benefits “for a day or two.” Some states may also have unspent funds that can help them to administer WIC for a short period of time.
“In some cases, it would be literally within a matter of days after the shutdown,” Vilsack said about the potential loss of WIC benefits. “In some states, it may literally be in a matter of weeks.”
But some Republicans dismiss these concerns as Biden administration overreach, a kind of political Chicken Little interpretation of a government shutdown.
“OK, you hear all that. Granny’s going over the cliff. What about the country going over the cliff?” said Representative Ralph Norman, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, referring to previous Democratic policy attacks. “That’s ludicrous.”
When I asked why he believed the administration’s warning was ludicrous, Norman replied: “I’ve heard that song and dance all over again.”
Another conservative Republican, Representative Bob Good, said that the Biden administration has bigger worries than the seven million women and children who could lose their benefits in the case of a shutdown.
“The Biden administration should be concerned about 330 million Americans who are suffering under their oppressive policies,” Good said, citing inflation, “open border policies that are killing 100,000 Americans on an annual basis,” and the fentanyl crisis.
Other Republicans argued that the administration was choosing to deliberately punish the most vulnerable. “When they shut the government down, they do a lot of picking and choosing of what they close, and they do that to hurt people, and that’s despicable,” said Representative Tim Burchett. He also insisted that the country’s fiscal situation and growing national deficit would eventually lead to economic collapse, which would be even worse for low-income Americans.
Representative Darrell Issa dismissed Vilsack’s prediction, calling it a “fear tactic.” He noted that WIC payments were disbursed during the previous government shutdown at the end of 2018 and into January 2019. The program would have run out of funding, however, had the shutdown continued past February of that year. During the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, states had sufficient funding to continue to administer WIC, even as federal funding expired.
But the situation in 2023 is different. A spokesperson for the USDA told me that enrollment in WIC was down and declining in comparison to its allocated funding levels during the 2018–2019 shutdown. But the burden on the USDA to distribute WIC has increased in recent years, given the spike in enrollment and the higher cost of food.
“Under the Biden-Harris administration, USDA has worked to modernize, strengthen, and expand the reach of WIC to improve health outcomes for moms, babies, and young children, which has resulted in increased enrollment but less unexpended funding,” the spokesperson told me. “Some states may have carryover funds or can use their own state funds to continue program operations for different amounts of time—USDA does not have control over whether states elect to use their own funds—but the risk to vulnerable families is real.”
The Biden administration requested $1.4 billion in emergency spending for WIC earlier this month, warning that millions of recipients could be pushed onto wait lists without the additional funds. Although the Senate version of the continuing resolution, the bill that would temporarily extend government funding, includes flexibilities to prevent WIC recipients from losing their benefits, it’s unlikely that either chamber of Congress passes that legislation before Saturday’s deadline.
Few Republicans actively support a shutdown. Most have stressed that they do not believe it would be an effective tactic for garnering concessions from the Democratic-led Senate and White House. “I do not think a shutdown is where we should go,” said Representative Garret Graves, a key ally of Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
However, Republicans only have a four-seat majority, meaning that they need nearly every GOP representative on board to pass a stopgap funding bill without any Democratic votes. Several hard-line conservatives are refusing to budge on their opposition to a such legislation—more than the four votes Speaker Kevin McCarthy can afford to lose.
House Republicans have limited leverage in any eventual negotiations with the Senate, particularly if they do not approve their own legislation extending government funding before the September 30 deadline. “We have to recognize that Republicans have slim control of only the House—not the Senate, and not the White House,” Representative Doug LaMalfa said. “There’s no win on this. And Biden welcomes it, because he’d love to have the heat off of him for a change.”
The House is scheduled to vote this week on several appropriations bills, but none addresses the immediate problem of the looming government shutdown because several have indicated that they may not support a continuing resolution under any circumstances—even if it included key GOP priorities like funding for increased border security
The Republicans who oppose passing a continuing resolution may not yet appreciate the effects of a shutdown on their constituents, Representative Steve Womack suggested. When I mentioned the potential cuts to WIC, he said that people currently only understand a shutdown in terms of abstract numbers, but those numbers will eventually translate into “real-life consequences.”
Womack pointed to the proposed House appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which could have a 30 percent spending cut, according to the chair of the subcommittee that handles the bill.
“We’re talking about cuts to programs that most Americans truly care about,” Womack said. “That’s when your butt is hanging out on the flagpole at the highest level; when those numbers start to be translated into real-life consequences that affect your constituents.”