Participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores, new research reveals.
The social, economic, and health-related benefits of food stamps have been documented in numerous studies over the years. The federal food assistance program is widely cited as the most effective and efficient of any government benefits program, and research shows that every $5 in food stamp spending generates up to $9 in economic activity. Studies have also found that food stamp participation is associated with improvements in diet, higher rates of breastfeeding, and better health outcomes among women and children, and some recent reports even credit the government program for a marked drop in childhood obesity.
Now, a newly published study adds to the evidence, finding that the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, doesn’t just boost the health of young children and their moms: It also plays a positive role in kids’ cognitive development.
“These findings suggest that WIC meaningfully contributes to children’s educational prospects,” Brown University sociologist Margot Jackson writes in the article, which was published online ahead of print in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
WIC is a large-scale government program serving 53 percent of all infants born in the United States. It provides vouchers that are redeemed at supermarkets for healthy, nutritious food such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women are eligible, as are children up their fifth birthday; parents also receive nutritional education and counseling.
For the study, Jackson analyzed two sets of data to investigate both short-term and longer-term outcomes of WIC participation. The first dataset was the birth cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed about 11,000 children from age nine months to kindergarten. It includes information on WIC participation, as well as the results of a standard test given at age two, “an assessment general mental ability that indicates problem-solving and language-acquisition skills.”
The other dataset came from the Child Development Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of families. It includes information on both WIC participation and the results of standard math and reading tests administered when the children were, on average, 11 years old.
WIC participation confers lasting benefits for children
Both sets of data linked participation in WIC with positive outcomes. The first showed that “prenatal/early childhood WIC exposure is associated with significantly stronger cognitive development,” Jackson writes. The second provided evidence that “the benefit associated with WIC participation persists into the school years.”
To reach that second conclusion, Jackson compared test scores of children from the same family, comparing those who grew up with WIC nutritional assistance with those who did not. (For a variety of reasons, some mothers do not participate in WIC until they have had at least one child.)
These within-family comparisons “suggest that children who receive prenatal/early childhood exposure to WIC perform significantly better on reading assignments—up to 0.3 of a standard deviation—than their siblings who do not,” she writes. “This association is not explained by measured differences in prenatal behavior toward siblings, such as time spent reading with children or breastfeeding behavior, nor is it explained by differences in families’ economic circumstances during the child’s birth year.”
In other words: WIC works. Kids who ate healthier food showed signs of stronger cognitive development early in life, and their later test scores show that these initial indications were not just a fluke.
In an ironic twist, the study comes barely more than a week after Republican lawmakers slipped a $93 million cut to the WIC program into the last-minute compromise federal budget just passed by Congress. But this isn’t the first time the food stamp program has come under attack from the right — far from it, actually. Despite the evidence documenting its effectiveness and cost-savings, the federal food assistance program — comprised of WIC, along with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — is a frequent target of Republican lawmakers, who have repeatedly tried to slash its funding and weaken its benefits.
Perhaps the incoming Congress may want to read up on the research before it draws up the next federal budget.