How Programs That Fund Breastfeeding Support For Low-Income Moms Help Us All

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

WIC (Women, Infants, Children) – a federally funded program offering nutrition supplements, stipends, and counseling to low-income women of kids 5 and under – isn’t perfect. Their offices are often understaffed. Getting qualified can entail filling out way too much paperwork and waiting way too long in overcrowded offices. I’ve personally been there, and it isn’t fun.

And yet, programs like WIC – along with SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid – have been the saving grace for so many families who are struggling, mine included. Their assistance sometimes means the difference between putting your kids to sleep with a full or empty belly. Without programs like Medicaid, many kids wouldn’t have the medicine and care for basic preventative health, or to fight serious illnesses.

We need these program to exist. They are vital to keeping low-income kids and families healthy, and serve as important stepping stones for helping struggling families get back on their feet. But it’s not just about ensuring that all citizens have basic human rights (though should be indisputable).

People often critique public assistance programs, but what they don’t realize is that giving low-income families these so-called “handouts” isn’t throwing money down the drain; what you are actually doing is strengthening our society and our economy. These programs are cost-effective in the long-run.

Take, for example, the breastfeeding counseling program at WIC. Many people don’t know that in addition to providing nutritional counseling and stipends, WIC also offers breastfeeding counseling and assistance to new mothers. The problem is, like many public assistance programs, the breastfeeding support aspect of WIC is in need of an overhaul.

This is especially true because when you look at the overall breastfeeding rates in our country, you’ll see that not only do many women fall short of meeting their own breastfeeding goals, but breastfeeding rates are especially low among low-income women. And this most definitely has something to do with not getting proper support. It’s not like every mom can afford the services of a lactation consultant if they encounter a breastfeeding challenge.

The good news is that the Senate Appropriations Committee, in an effort to increase breastfeeding rates in the U.S., is looking into ways to strengthen WIC’s breastfeeding support services. Last March, they commissioned a group of scientists to study what it would take to fund WIC’s breastfeeding program so that the U.S. could meet its breastfeeding goals. (Yes, the government has breastfeeding goals for our country, outlined here, including ensuring that 60% of babies are breastfeeding at six months).

According to the report, released last month, if WIC were to increase their breastfeeding rates to get to a goal of 90% of babies exclusively breastfeeding at six months, they would also need to increase the budget of their breastfeeding support services. That would look like extra funding of $252.4 million, a 4.2% increase over WIC’s 2016 budget.

But here’s the interesting part: though $250 million might sound like a lot, the report explains that increasing funds for this program would actually SAVE everyone money in the end. And a whole lot of money, at that – billions of dollars.

In this case, the reasoning is that more babies breastfeeding would mean many short- and long-term health benefits to both moms and their babies – and thus, a huge reduction in health care costs to both families and the programs (like Medicaid) that support them.

For example, as the report describes, increased breastfeeding rates would decrease the federal portion paid to Medicaid by at least $111.6 million. “As a result, Federal program costs to WIC and Medicaid combined would have increased by an estimated $140.9 million,” the report explains.

Overall, the report continues, “[t]otal health-related costs would have been reduced by $9.1 billion (including savings to Medicaid). Over three-quarters ($6.9 billion) of the health-related cost savings would have resulted from reductions in early deaths. The rest would be due to savings in medical costs ($1.5 billion) and nonmedical costs ($635 million).”

And get this: the overall cost savings to WIC families and/or their insurance providers? It would total $9 billion.


This isn’t just a testament to the power of breastfeeding and the health protections it offers moms and babies, though that is important too. It’s also a very important demonstration of what funding pubic assistance programs like WIC means – not only for our citizens, but for our overall economic strength and security.

You see similar results when you look at other public assistance programs as well. Increasing SNAP benefits has been shown to reduce the overall poverty rate. Providing unemployment benefits to people boosts job rates and strengthens the economy. And the list goes on.

So let’s do this thing. Let’s make it so that every breastfeeding mother gets the support and resources she needs to meet her breastfeeding goals. And let’s make it possible for all families to be well fed, have easy access to the medical care they need, and be presented with every opportunity to increase their education, income, and quality of life.

It’s good all of us, and for our country.

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