Breastmilk, Formula, and WIC

May 5, 2015

The federal government runs more than 2,300 subsidy programs. One of the problems created by the armada of hand-outs is that many programs work at cross-purposes.

Government information programs urge women to breastfeed. This website says, “the cells, hormones, and antibodies in breastmilk protect babies from illness. This protection is unique and changes to meet your baby’s needs.” Breastfeeding, the government says, may protect babies against asthma, leukemia, obesity, ear infections, eczema, diarrhea, vomiting, lower respiratory infections, necrotizing enterocolitis, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes. 

The alternative to breastfeeding is baby formula. Some moms need to use formula, but you would think given the superiority of breastmilk that the government would not want to encourage formula. But that is exactly what the government does with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “largest single expense” in the $6 billion program is subsidies for formula. If you subsidize something, you get more of it. And, presumably, more formula means less breastmilk.

The government and probably every pediatrician tell moms to breastfeed if they can, yet the government provides huge subsidies for the alternative. “Huge” seems to be the correct word. The WSJ says that WIC provides benefits to the moms of half of all babies in the nation, and the program “accounts for well over half of all infant formula sold in the U.S.” That is remarkable.

Obviously then, ending WIC subsidies for formula would be a good way to trim the bloated federal budget. Another way to trim the budget would be to cut off people on WIC who earn more than the federal income limits, which is the focus of the WSJ article.

So WIC would be a good target for reforms by Republicans, who often rail against bloated spending and promise to eliminate deficits. Alas, rather than a take-charge reform agenda on WIC from the GOP, the WSJ captures just a quiet whimper:

“The focus will remain on preserving the intent of these programs, which is to ensure low-income children—and, in this case, mothers and infants in need—receive supplemental assistance to help protect against inadequate nutrition,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), who has a lead role in renewing the WIC law.

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