Estimates of Full-Funding Participation
Not all of those who are eligible for WIC will participate in the program. Therefore, to estimate full-funding participation, the numbers of people estimated to be eligible are adjusted downward based on estimates of what percentage of eligible persons will participate. Past practice in making this adjustment has been to assume that participation rates for WIC mirror participation rates for the Food Stamp Program for young children. Until recently, the participation rate for this program from the late 1980s was used as a guideline for adjusting the eligibility estimates, meaning that roughly 80 percent of those eligible were estimated to participate. No adjustment is made for differential participation rates among the eligibility categories.
Very little is known about WIC participation, either in a descriptive sense (e.g., trends in participation rates over time and for different populations) or in terms of the behavioral aspects of an individual’s decision to participate. It is therefore difficult to justify the use of a single specific adjustment factor for likely participation in the process of estimating annual participation. Assuming that WIC participation rates will be similar to those of the Food Stamp Program is problematic because the two programs are so different. WIC serves those at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and those with higher incomes who are adjunctively eligible through Medicaid. The Food Stamp Program serves those who are at or below 130 percent of poverty guidelines. The income verification
process for WIC is not as burdensome as the income verification process for food stamps. WIC does not have an asset test, but the Food Stamp Program does. Citizenship is not a requirement for WIC but it is for the Food Stamp Program. WIC considers only gross income, while the Food Stamp Program also considers net income after certain allowable deductions. WIC and the Food Stamp Program also have very different practices about the length of time a participant is certified as eligible, income verification, and definitions of economic units. Unlike the Food Stamp Program, the WIC program requires that nutritional risk of all applicants be assessed, which is often a lengthy process. WIC program benefits are quite different from food stamp benefits. The total value of food benefits are smaller for WIC.1 Only specific foods may be purchased with WIC food instruments, while there are very few restrictions on the types of foods that can be purchased with food stamps. The WIC program encourages all participants or their caregivers to have at least two nutrition education contacts during the certification period; the Food Stamp Program does not. It is also likely that WIC participation does not carry the same stigma that food stamp participation does, because WIC has the specific nutritional component that enables a mother to “do the right thing” and provide proper nutrition to her children. Finally, for WIC, each state has a yearly food expenditure goal and must meet at least 97 percent of its food grant or face penalties in the form of reduced funding for the next year. Thus, over the very short run, WIC participation is somewhat constrained. Each of these differences in the eligibility rules, benefit levels, purposes, and possible stigmas of the programs is likely to have differential effects on an individual’s decisions to participate.
Conclusion: Use of food stamp participation rates as a proxy for WIC participation rates is inappropriate because the program rules and goals, populations targeted, benefits provided, and public stigmas of these programs are sufficiently different that participation decisions for the program are also likely to be quite different.
Recommendation: The panel recommends that alternative methods for estimating WIC participation rates be examined. In addition, fur-
ther research concerning factors that influence the decision to apply for and participate in WIC should be conducted.
The panel has not had time to fully consider alternative methods but does propose a preliminary alternative. The method applies WIC participation rates from the latest year available to estimates of eligibility for the upcoming year. For example, to estimate participation for 2002, the number of people who participated in WIC from the most recent year with available data, divided by the number of people estimated to be eligible for that year, would be used to adjust the estimates of eligible people for 2002. Since it is likely that participation for each of the eligibility categories varies (e.g., children’s participation rates may be lower than infants’ participation rates), separate adjustments for each eligibility category should be made. This measure is conceptually easy to grasp and can be constructed with existing data.2 The merits and drawbacks of this method need to be further explored, and its predictive value should be assessed. Further work could also explore the use of a more sophisticated method that attempts to control for the business cycle or for population composition between the lagged year and the prediction year. But in the short run, the lagged WIC participation rate has promise as an alternative to current practice.
In the long run, the Food and Nutrition Service should sponsor more research on WIC participation decisions and behavior. Program participation modeling studies, such as those that have been conducted for other social welfare programs (Blank and Ruggles, 1994; Currie and Gruber 1996a, 1996b; Moffitt, 1992), could also be applied to the WIC program. Descriptive studies could also be valuable in building a base of knowledge about WIC participation. Studies that explore trends in participation in WIC such as those that are conducted for the Food Stamp Program (see Castner, 2000; and Castner and Cody, 1999, for recent publications on a series of food stamp participation reports) are one example.