The Next Continuing Resolution Must Prioritize Children and their Families
Nearly 45 days ago, Members of Congress waited until the last minute to temporarily fund the government and prevent a shutdown. Now we are facing a similar predicament as the extension clock runs out this Friday, meaning Congress has only three days to either create another Continuing Resolution (CR) or actually pass a budget to keep the government funded and avert a shutdown right before the holidays.
A shutdown of the federal government would put millions of children, youth, and families at risk of not having their daily needs met. Essential programs and resources like Head Start, Housing Choice Vouchers, and child care could also be in danger in the aftermath of a CR that would open the doors to cuts in future appropriations negotiations. Meanwhile, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is in danger of being left out of the CR conversation all together, and by the time Congress returns to the funding conversation, families could already be losing access to the program.
WIC currently functions as an investment in the next generation by providing healthy food, nutrition support, and healthcare referrals to moms and their babies and young children. WIC has been known to improve both maternal and child nutrition and has also enjoyed a long history of bipartisan support in Congress.
Since 2020, WIC has been experiencing a more than 18 percent increase in child participation, and the program is expected to serve as many as 7 million pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children in fiscal year 2024, including a disproportionate number of Black and Latino families.
Due to this growth in participation and dramatic increases in the price of food, the program is outpacing official cost projections. Now 600,000 people (nearly the entire population of the state of Vermont) are vulnerable to being turned away when they attempt to sign up for WIC, forcing states to employ waitlists for the first time since the 1990s.
Neither the House nor Senate appropriations packages include sufficient funding to meet the needs of WIC. For nearly 30 years, Democrats and Republicans alike have been committed to providing the funding necessary to serve all eligible participants by funding WIC like a permanent program rather than a discretionary one. This means that in 27 years, no pregnant woman, infant, or young child has been turned away from the program. If this long-standing bipartisan commitment to WIC ends, program administrators across the country will be forced to employ cost-cutting procedures—like waitlists—to keep their programs afloat through the fiscal year. Waitlists mean the fate of many children’s—and their families’—nutrition and well-being will hang in the balance as their cases are decided. It is crucial that, as it prepares the next funding package, Congress fully fund WIC and provide pregnant and postpartum women, babies, and young children with access to nutrition assistance, breastfeeding counseling, formula, and other essential resources that they need.
What Happens Next?
The extra time Congress bought themselves six weeks ago is about to run out. Both the House and the Senate must agree on a plan to avert a shutdown that the President must sign by the end of Friday. The House—led by its new speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson—has revealed a “two-tiered” CR approach that places each appropriations package into two buckets. This means different bills will have one of two renewal deadlines—January 19, or February 2, 2024. Members on both sides of the aisle worry that splitting up the appropriations deadlines could cause repeat partial shutdowns and would be detrimental to future budget processes.
Speaker Johnson’s two-tiered approach is not only unacceptable because it sets up a complicated, bifurcated budgeting process for next year; it also does not include emergency supplemental funding for WIC. As Congress works around the clock to keep the lights on, they must prioritize the needs of children in their short- and long-term fixes, and that looks like including the funding necessary to keep critical programs like WIC accessible to all who need it.
We know that Congress typically demotes the needs of individuals, most of all children, in times of accelerated decision-making. That is why Children’s Defense Fund is actively reaching out to leaders in both the House and Senate to remind them to prioritize the lives of children and caregivers in any Continuing Resolution by including emergency funding for WIC and other important programs and resources crucial to the health and well-being of young people.
Just 45 days after securing an extension, the looming threat of a shutdown means both chambers will be fighting over which programs are included in the final agreement. It is time for our leaders to stop playing with the lives of America’s most vulnerable and put children and their families first to ensure that any CR supports young people and their right to grow up with dignity, hope, and joy.