By Candace Baker
When my grandmother was raising my cousins and me, she taught us to work hard and go after what we wanted. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were in poverty.
Scared of judgment and bureaucracy, my grandmother refused to apply for assistance programs. But that meant she had to work several jobs, day and night, bringing us with her because she couldn’t afford childcare. We barely got by — and enjoyed no time together outside of work and school.
We thought that’s how everyone lived. Your grandma works around the clock and still can’t make ends meet. That’s life, right? But as I got older, I saw that other kids had new clothes, after-school activities, and time to play.
I wanted that. And most of all, I wanted to help my grandmother so that she could have it too. So I vowed to get a college education and a good-paying job helping others.
If I wanted to achieve my dream of helping my family, I knew I’d have to do something different. I’d heard about a program that helped pregnant and postpartum moms and their babies, the Special Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC.
I almost didn’t apply because when I tried to enroll in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), I ran into the same judgment and bureaucrat¬ic stumbling blocks my grand¬mother feared. But I knew I needed help — and so did my baby.
And let me tell you — WIC was a gamechanger!
WIC not only provides nutritious foods but also nutrition education, breastfeeding sup-port, and even health care referrals for low-income mothers and small children. It helps to reduce maternal and infant mortality and improves health outcomes so children have the best chance at a healthy and productive life.
I also was able to get the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help with our food needs. And because of these programs, I was able to go back to school, get my high school diploma, enroll in college, and graduate Magna Cum Laude. I was even able to become a volunteer mentor with a federally funded program called Second Chance to help people who served prison time reenter society in a healthy, productive way.
Families like mine are every¬where — about half of all babies born in the United States benefit from WIC.
It turns out that most of us just need a little help at especially difficult times in our lives. If wages had kept pace with the rising cost of living, rent, and food, perhaps we wouldn’t need assistance programs. But wages haven’t kept pace with living costs in 50 years.
For the past 25 years, WIC has served every eligible family that applied for its critical services. But now it’s in danger — Congress hasn’t agreed to fund the program to meet the needs of all who are eligible. There’s a $1 billion shortfall, which means that 2 million pregnant and postpartum women and their little ones won’t get necessary food and health assistance.
Imagine all those families that will face food insecurity, childbirth complications, and nega¬tive impacts on their health and wellbeing that can last a lifetime — even generations.
I now have four children. All four benefited greatly from the WIC program, just as all who are eligible deserve to do. I believe in everything WIC does — I even took a job there helping with breastfeeding support. I’m also an Expert on Poverty at the anti-poverty organization RESULTS. These opportunities allow me to advocate for the programs that supported me when I was in need.
I need your help to ensure that Congress does the same. We must fully fund the WIC program so that no eligible family is turned away.
Candace Baker is a mother, fierce advocate for anti-poverty programs, and Expert on Poverty at RESULTS from Indianapolis, Indiana. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.