The government shutdown: a threat to health


Update Oct. 4: In a news release on October 2, the Pennsylvania Department of Health outlined the steps being taken to maintain the WIC program during the current federal government shutdown. By using funds from the previous year and harboring administrative funds they hope to sustain operations for “a few weeks” and they are working with federal and state officials to “minimize service disruptions as much as possible.”

This announcement follows the issuance of new guidelines by the Food and Nutrition Service of the US Department of Agriculture, allowing states to tap into additional funds but warning of funding shortfalls in fiscal year 2014.



You might think that a party so deeply opposed to women’s reproductive rights would be a party in favor of helping pregnant women and babies. 

You would be wrong about that.

The government shutdown orchestrated by that very same party has threatened the health and well-being of the nearly 9 million women and children under five living below or close to the poverty line who depend on WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children. There are, if the shutdown continues, enough funds left in the program for about two more weeks. In Pennsylvania, the WIC program serves pregnant women, breastfeeding women for up to a year postpartum, women up to six months postpartum who are not breastfeeding and infants and children (including foster children) up to five years old in households up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level based on household size (with unborn babies counted as part of the household).

The WIC program exists because prenatal nutrition, breastfeeding support, and healthy nutrition in infancy and childhood are vital to healthy physical and intellectual development of our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. The WIC program began in 1972 after physicians reached out to the federal government with information about the nutritional needs of low-income pregnant women and children who were experiencing medical problems related to lack of food. (Information regarding the importance of prenatal nutrition, breastfeeding support, and a healthy diet for infants and children can be found using the pubmed database of the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Note, however, that the database is “being maintained with minimal staffing, due to a lapse in government funding.”)

If you are curious about the original WIC legislation and how it has been amended since it first began, you will have to wait until the government reopens.  Currently, the Federal Digital System of government documents is shut down, “with the exception of documents necessary to safeguard human life, protect property or provide other emergency services.” For now, you can find out more about the history of WIC on its Wikipedia page.

The WIC website at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, is down, too. But details of the shutdown plan as it affects federal food and nutrition programs can be found in a memo posted on an outside site.. The list of programs that will not be funded includes not only WIC but also food stamps (nown known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); Child Nutrition programs in the Schools; and Emergency Food Assistance programs, among others. 

If expertise matters to you (and it should!), the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement decrying the suspension of federal government services, including WIC, that results in children and families being put at risk. This press release, issued when the shutdown began, concludes with the reminder that nearly one in five children live in poverty and that the federal government shutdown is harming our nation’s most vulnerable families.  And there are a lot of them. In Pennsylvania, the WIC program provides nutrition education and breastfeeding support and health care to over 250,000 participants every month. (New Jersey residents can get information here)

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has  proposed funding a few popular government programs while the budget impasse continues continues; WIC is not one of them. So, let’s go back to the where we started: If the government shutdown doesn’t come to an end quickly, nearly 9 million pregnant women, nursing and new mothers, infants, and children will lose the nutritional support they need. They are going to be the hungry and compromised victims of a political strategy aimed at blackmailing the nation into surrendering a law that provides for expanded access to health insurance. That isn’t simply bad politics or bad public health policy, it is inhumane and needs to be fixed. Now.

Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women.

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