Effects of Participation in the WIC Food Assistance Program on Children’s Health and Development: Evidence from NLSY Children

Year: 1999

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Kowaleski-Jones, Lori, and Greg J. Dunca

Institution: University of Utah

Project Contact:
Lori Kowaleski-Jones
Department of Family and Consumer Studies
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0080
801-585-0074, fax 801-581-5156


Established in 1972, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has as its goal to increase the nutrition level and general well-being of children. The WIC program is currently one of the fastest growing Federal assistance programs. Program expenditures for WIC have almost tripled in the past two decades, from $1.3 billion in 1980 to $3.7 billion in 1997. Part of the popularity of WIC has been because it is one of the most directly targeted and interventionist of the Federal welfare programs. Available evaluations of this program testify to its value in reducing infant mortality, rates of low birthweight, and early child anemia. However, many of the WIC program evaluations were conducted prior to 1990, and though many were of high quality, they either relied on data from a single State, or compared results across selected States. More current research is needed to examine the potential benefits of WIC participation among a nationally representative sample of women and their children.

Much of the previous work on the effects of WIC has focused on infant birthweight, nutrient intakes, presence of anemia, and propensity of mothers to breastfeed their infants. Fewer studies have estimated the effects of WIC participation on developmental infant measures, such as motor functioning, social functioning, and temperament, because of data limitations. The paucity of such studies is unfortunate because developmental outcomes are important predictors of later childhood social and behavioral development. Others have also identified as an important research goal the need for information about the effects of WIC on a wider range of child outcomes.

This study from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth investigates the effects of WIC participation on birthweight, motor and social skills, and temperament for a national sample of children born between 1990 and 1996. The authors use sibling fixed-effect models to account for potential unmeasured heterogeneity among the mothers of children in this sample. Both their ordinary least squares and fixed-effect regression estimates confirm the positive effect of prenatal WIC participation on infant birthweight. They argue that these results, based on a national sample and accounting for fixed effects, offer stronger evidence of the program’s positive effects than previous studies. WIC participation had no significant effects on the motor or social skill indices in their model. However, their fixed-effect estimates show that prenatal WIC participation is associated with lower scores on measures of difficult temperament. They find this result encouraging, suggesting that further research accounting for sibling effects may uncover evidence of more extensive benefits from WIC than previously documented.