Child access to the nutritional safety net during and after the Great Recession: The case of WIC

Research paper by Margot I. Jackson, Patrick Mayne

Indexed on: 14 Oct '16Published on: 13 Oct '16Published in: Social Science & Medicine


Because children disproportionately live in poverty, they are especially vulnerable during economic crises, making the social safety net a key buffer against the effects of economic disadvantage on their development. The Great Recession of 2007–2009 had strong and lasting effects on American children and families, including striking negative effects on their health environments. Understanding access to the health safety net during this time of increased economic need, as well as the extent to which all children—regardless of age, income or race/ethnicity—share in the increased use of transfer programs, is therefore important in identifying the availability and accessibility of government assistance for those in need. Focusing on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program because of its strong effects on child development, we use longitudinal data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to examine change and stability in children's WIC enrollment before, during and after the recession. Specifically, we examine: 1) whether children's WIC enrollment increased alongside changing family income, and 2) the extent to which changes in participation were shared by all subpopulations, regardless of age, income, and race/ethnicity. Analyses reveal that WIC participation among eligible children increased leading up to, during, and after the Great Recession, suggesting that the program was responsive to increasing economic need. Examining the distribution of WIC enrollment across demographic groups largely reveals a pattern of stable inequality in access and “take up.” Children born to poorer and less-educated mothers were more likely to be enrolled prior to the recession, and these differences remain mostly constant during and after the recession. Eligible Hispanic children had consistently higher enrollment, particularly among those in families with foreign-born mothers. The findings suggest that not all eligible children equally enroll in WIC, but that these differences have not been drastically exacerbated by macroeconomic instability.

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