No safety net exists for children who age out of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) before they become eligible to attend kindergarten, a new study shows.
Not only does the coverage gap affect overall food insecurity, but it also reduces reading scores at kindergarten entry, a time when children are often placed on learning trajectories, says Irma Arteaga, assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri.
Policymakers should consider extending WIC eligibility until children enter school rather than setting an age limit, she says.
“The cutoff age of five for WIC is associated with an assumption that this is the normal age at which children enter kindergarten and become eligible for lunch programs,” she says.
“The coverage gap that exists for children who are aging out of WIC is a problem that can be fixed.”
“However, not all children who are five automatically begin school. State and local rules, not federal, determine the age at which children begin kindergarten. These rules are reliant on some predetermined date—for example, September 1—meaning children born after that date will not enter kindergarten until the following year, thus losing WIC benefits with nothing to replace them.”
For a new study, which appears in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, Arteaga and colleagues analyzed data for 1,950 children between the ages of 4 and 6.5 from a nationally representative data set and found evidence that children who had aged out of WIC prior to attending kindergarten had lower reading scores compared to their peers when tested at entry. The scores improved when tested again in the spring after children had access to food through school lunch programs.
The findings are consistent with prior research that showed an increase in rates of food insecurity for children who age out of WIC and who have not yet started kindergarten.
“The coverage gap that exists for children who are aging out of WIC is a problem that can be fixed,” Arteaga says. “Policymakers should address the unintended consequences facing millions of children each year who are unlucky enough to be born in the wrong state and in the wrong month.”
Researchers from Syracuse University and Westminster College are coauthors of the paper. The US Department of Agriculture and the Institute for Research on Poverty RIDGE Center for Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin funded the work.
Source: University of Missouri