Shortage of formulas reveals a familiar weakness in our safety net

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Last week, the Ohio Department of Health has requested that the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services allow more flexibility in their welfare programs around infant formula.

The program of greatest interest to the Ohio Department of Health is the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, one of the nation’s largest nutrition programs.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, more than 38,000 women in Ohio receive WIC benefits per month. These benefits feed more than 55,000 infants and more than 70,000 children every month.

The WIC works differently than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). While SNAP gives an allowance in dollars, WIC gives women a list of foods they are allowed to buy, much like a rationing system. Women who receive the WIC receive a card from the state which they can then use to purchase “allowed foods” and then are asked to refer to a brochure detailing those allowed foods when shopping.

The nationwide shortage of infant formula reveals a flaw in the design of the WIC program. WIC accounts for about half of all formula purchases in the United States, but WIC vouchers typically only allow the purchase of one brand of formula. This means that if this infant formula supplier stops producing infant formula, millions of families across the country will suddenly have no one to turn to to feed their infants.

Congress moved quickly to address this issue with the program and last weekend President Biden signed a bill to expand access to new types of formulas. But why does it take an act of Congress for a key nutrition program to provide the most common source of nutrition for infants in times of crisis?

If you haven’t figured this out by now, there’s a lot of getting started 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 places strict limits on what can be purchased, with the good intention of providing healthy food for families.

Contrast that with the Child Tax Credit, a program that gives families a cash allowance to buy everything they need to support their families — no strings attached, no declarations.

While WIC is seemingly the most direct way to support nutrition in families, it wasn’t flexible enough to deal with a fairly predictable nutrition problem — a formula shortage — without a congressional overhaul of the program. A child tax credit recipient, on the other hand, could immediately spend their money on a new formula if a formula becomes more expensive or runs out.

The shortage of formulas is a national problem, but more and more individual problems arise every day. A bus pass to get to work across town. Childcare costs. Overdue rent. These are all things that WIC cannot buy.

That’s not to say that WIC is any worse than the no-program alternative at all. But we run the risk of thinking that we know more about the future and fate of individual families than we do when we design a program as prescriptive as WIC.

Maybe in the future we will have a safety net that will trust families to make their own decisions. Perhaps then we will have a safety net that does not require acts by state officials at the cabinet level and congressional agreements to allow access to the basic resources needed to survival in the face of an all-too-predictable crisis.

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