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Estimating Eligibility and Participation for the WIC Program: Phase I Report
by as much as 20 to 30 percent. These high “coverage rates” have led some members of Congress to conclude that some people who participate are truly ineligible, and that funding could be reduced somewhat and still meet the needs of truly eligible persons who wish to participate. But some advocates and state WIC agencies believe that the estimates of the number of eligible persons are too low and more people who are eligible and want to participate could do so.
In response to these concerns, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the USDA asked the Committee on National Statistics of the National Research Council to convene a panel of experts to review the methods used to estimate the number of people nationwide who are eligible and likely to participate in the WIC program. The panel’s charge is to review currently used and alternative data and methods for estimating income eligibility, adjunctive eligibility from participation in other public assistance programs, nutritional risk, and participation if the program is fully funded.
The study has two phases. In this first phase, the panel is to assess the current methodology for making eligibility and participation estimates and, if possible, to recommend improvements to the methodology. In the second phase, the panel will examine alternative methods and data sources for estimates, consider improvements in data that could affect the estimates, and explore selected topics in more detail.
The principal finding of the panel’s initial work is that the current methodology and assumptions employed by FNS substantially understate the number of people who are income eligible for WIC.
To be fully eligible for WIC, a person must meet categorical, income, and nutritional risk criteria. Infants age 0 through 12 months, children age 1 through 4 years, pregnant women, nonbreastfeeding women less than 6 months postpartum, and breastfeeding women up to 1 year postpartum are categorically eligible for WIC. To be considered income eligible for WIC, applicants must have incomes at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or they must be enrolled in Medicaid, the Food Stamp Program, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) —meaning they are adjunctively income eligible for WIC. Finally, to be fully eligible, an applicant must meet nutritional risk criteria as assessed by a competent professional authority. For example, if an applicant is underweight, is