I’ve mentioned before that New York Times editorials often read like college newspaper editorials aged a few years. Last Friday’s NYT editorial was no exception. Entitled, “The War on Women” (hyperbolize much?), it opens like this:
Republicans in the House of Representatives are mounting an assault on women’s health and freedom that would deny millions of women access to affordable contraception and life-saving cancer screenings and cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families. And this is just the beginning.
Yikes. Tell us how you really feel.
Listen, I have about a million bones to pick with Republicans, whom I disagree with about as much as I do with Democrats. But the “Republicans are evil and want to kill women/babies/minorities/unions/you/me/etc” schtick gets old after about the billionth time. Even if I might agree with your ultimate point, I don’t care to listen to the same stuff over and over again.
Anyway, I mention this only to highlight this portion of the editorial, which apparently identifies the Republicans attempt to “cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families”:
Beyond the familiar terrain of abortion or even contraception, House Republicans would inflict harm on low-income women trying to have children or who are already mothers.
Their continuing resolution would cut by 10 percent the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, which serves 9.6 million low-income women, new mothers, and infants each month, and has been linked in studies to higher birth weight and lower infant mortality.
They don’t even throw some buffer in there between the House Republicans and low-income women. I read this and I envision John Boehner actually punching a pregnant woman, which is impossible because John Boehner is more hormonal than pregnant women.
Anyway, the message is clear: Republicans want to “inflict harm” on women (as part of their “War on Women”) and babies by cutting (by 10% - essentially back to 2008 levels) WIC. Which sounds horrible. But sounds slightly less horrible when you actually get into the details of WIC beyond two paragraphs in a hysterical editorial based on the premise that one of the two major political parties is waging a “war” on one of the two major sexes in the country.
For example, from Katherine Mangu-Ward over at Reason:
Seriously? The only cheeses allowed: American, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, and Swiss? And the only permissible low-fat cheese is Kraft brand only? (Yeah, I bet no lobbying dollar changed hands on that one.) Dried peas, not fresh? White eggs, not brown? Pineapple juice is in, cranberry is out? Why?! It's safe to assume that in most cases very, very poor mothers aren't going to blow all the cash on brie. (And if they do, well, maybe they had a good reason that week.)
This locked down, scientifically-outdated list is exactly the reason to be skeptical of even clean-sounding government aid programs.
And Megan McCardle in 2008:
But I hope we can all agree that it's time for WIC to take the long walk behind the barn. The goal of the program is laudable, and even (gasp!) something I think we should be spending government money on: making sure that poor, er, proto-babies get adequate prenatal nutrition. But as it has been implemented, the thing is a massive handout to dairy farmers.
And Laura McKenna, a former political science professor who was on WIC as a grad student:
Now for the weird part. You can't redeem your voucher for formula and walk out of the supermarket. You had to buy everything, the cheese and the juice and the milk, whether you wanted it or not. Most annoyingly, they required you to purchase vast quantities of milk. Like two or three gallons per week. Far more than an average person could consume. We had to give away some of the milk to neighbors so it wouldn't go bad.
Now for the annoying part. You had to cart all that milk home. Not every supermarket accepts WIC vouchers. We had to walk to a far off supermarket over on Broadway. All that milk doesn't fit in the back of babystroller, so you had to have someone help you get it all home. I suppose if you had car it wouldn't be such a big deal. But I'll let you in on a secret. A lot of poor people don't have cars.
Surely, there was some deal with the milk farmers over this one. Some Vermont Senator got a little pork back home in exchange for my backache.
That was the abbreviated story of us on WIC. I could tell you how humiliating it was to get the voucher signed by the store manager. Or long waits at the WIC office to get recertified. Or the required parenting classes.
And George Kent, in the International Breastfeeding Journal (yes, it’s apparently a real journal and yes, I’m getting a subscription):
The United States' Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) distributes about half the infant formula used in the United States at no cost to the families. This is a matter of concern because it is known that feeding with infant formula results in worse health outcomes for infants than breastfeeding…
The evidence that is available indicates that the WIC program has the effect of promoting the use of infant formula, thus placing infants at higher risk. Moreover, the program violates the widely accepted principles that have been set out in the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and in the human right to adequate food…
There is no good reason for an agency of government to distribute large quantities of free infant formula. It is recommended that the large-scale distribution of free infant formula by the WIC program should be phased out…
And Matt Yglasias:
It can't be said often enough that the rules governing what is and isn't eligible for purchase under the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program is crazy and horrible (Ezra example -- soy milk doesn't count as "milk" but chocolate milk does). You could try to modify the program to make it less crazy, but it's obviously the result of a screwed up political process and undue power on the part of Big Cow.
And Ruth Marcus:
Starting in 2002, formula makers began to offer products with additives -- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) -- to replicate fatty acids in breast milk. Not surprisingly, these formulas cost more. The Agriculture Department, which oversees WIC, allowed state programs to decide what formula to buy. Not surprisingly, formula makers lobbied states to spring for the souped-up versions.
And, perhaps not coincidentally, when WIC was reauthorized in 2004, Congress tucked in language telling states that when soliciting bids for infant formula, they could not require manufacturers to include or omit specific ingredients.
You can guess what happened next: Formula makers began submitting bids only for the costlier products. A February 2010 Agriculture Department study pegged the added cost at $91 million annually, more than a tenth of the infant formula budget. Now new formulas with even more ingredients -- and even higher prices -- are being offered through WIC.
And Ezra Klein:
In writing the last post, I happened upon the Frequently Asked Questions for the food package in the Women's, Children, and Infants nutritional programs. They have, it turns out, a whole section on milk. And if it weren't so sad, it would be very, very funny.
You’ll notice a distinct lack of Glenn Beck in there.
That’s not to say there isn’t some merit in this program. And I doubt even the staunchest libertarians would have much of a problem with a program like this.
But it’s at least something to keep in mind the next time you hear the all-too-predictable “Evil Group X wants to harm Likable Group Y” by cutting funding for a program that sounds good in theory but does nothing like that in practice.