Breasts vs. Government Subsidies

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I was catching up on my reading in the International Breastfeeding Journal, and came across a great article by George Kent, a professor at the University of Hawaii.

As a scholarly article, it had no photos. Instead, what made it interesting were the contradictions it revealed in the federal women, infants, children (WIC) subsidy program. This is a $5 billion per year program that subsidizes families with babies, mainly by providing free infant formula.

Kent found that:

  • More than half of the infant formula consumed in the nation is provided free through WIC. That’s an awful lot of formula for a program that is supposed to be just for poor folks.
  • Government promotion of infant formula directly counters the advice of nearly all government and private experts regarding the superior health outcomes of breast milk over formula.
  • A government program is thus inducing mothers to substitute less nutritious formula for more nutritious breast milk. Breastfeeding is much less common among mothers on WIC than other mothers.
  • As I can attest, formula has a remarkably high retail price. Kent notes that formula is very inexpensive to produce, but that the government subsidies through WIC greatly inflate the demand. The losers are non-WIC families and the beneficiaries are an oligopoly of three formula makers.

Kent concludes that “there is no good reason for an agency of the government to distribute large quantities of free infant formula.” WIC subsidies for infant formula should be ended.

I would favor the whole WIC program be terminated. Unfortunately, like many federal aid programs administered by the states, WIC has a vigorous lobby group –National WIC– made up of the thousands of state and local government officials that run the program.

The group’s 2006 legislative agenda is entitled “WIC at RISK! A Healthy, Strong America in Jeopardy!” The document predicts dire consequences if Congress doesn’t go along. Unfortunately, most members buy into such doomsday rhetoric and aren’t regular readers of the International Breastfeeding Journal.