What Happens to Family Food Security When Children Age Out of WIC?

Mothers May Feed Children Rather Than Selves, Researchers Suggest

Woman holding child and plate with sandwich at lunch counter.
Women may forego nutrition to sacrifice for their children after WIC benefits end, researchers suggest. (Getty Images)

This blog highlights and summarizes a policy brief written by Marianne Bitler, professor of Economics at UC Davis. You can access the full policy brief here. Co-authors include Janet Currie, Princeton University; Hilary W. Hoynes, UC Berkeley; Krista J. Ruffini, Georgetown University; Lisa Schulkind, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Barton Willage, University of Colorado, Denver.


WIC is one of the most widely used U.S. food assistance programs, with nearly half of all infants participating. In 2021, the program served 6.2 million people at a cost of $5.0 billion. WIC provides vouchers that can be used to purchase specific nutritious foods. It also mandates nutritional education and provides referrals to other programs.


Key Facts


  • When children in the U.S. reach age 5, they become ineligible to receive food vouchers through WIC.
  • Aging out of WIC has no significant effect on food insecurity or caloric intake among children.
  • Women in households where a child has aged out of WIC experience greater food insecurity and lower caloric intake as they protect the children in the household from the loss of WIC support.

People eligible for WIC include pregnant, post-partum, or nursing mothers/persons; infants; and children younger than 5. Participants must have household incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line or participate in Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Participants must also be “at nutritional risk,” but in practice, most applicants are deemed at risk. WIC participants face a “cliff”: recipients receive the full WIC package unless and until they lose eligibility. Immigrants are eligible for WIC under the same circumstances as citizens.

Some previous studies have found that food insecurity and food-bank utilization increased when children age out of WIC eligibility, while others have found no such effects. In our study, we explored the spillover effects of child WIC participation on other family members’ food consumption, biomarkers, and food security. Specifically, we examined changes in these factors when the focal child aged out of WIC eligibility by turning 5.

When we examined the impact of a child aging out of WIC on the sample of adult women 20 to 50 who live in the same household as the child, we found large increases in both severe and moderate food insecurity... and reduction of adult calories.

Loss of eligibility impacts women in the household more than children

Regarding the effects of aging out of WIC for children ages 3 to 7, we identified only small changes in nutrition: an increase of nine calories relative to the mean of 1,676 calories per day. We also found the effects on food insecurity to be small and statistically insignificant. Our results strongly suggest that children were not changing their consumption of a key WIC package ingredient (milk), overall calories, or nutrients as measured by biomarkers.

However, when we examined the impact of a child aging out of WIC on the sample of adult women 20 to 50 who live in the same household as the child, we found large increases in both severe and moderate food insecurity. We also found large and significant reductions in adult calories.

Mothers shield children from consequences of WIC eligibility loss

We found no immediately measurable impact on the nutritional outcomes of the children who aged out of WIC. However, this may be because adult women in the household (who in many cases are their mothers) reduce their own consumption in order to buffer children from the consequences of losing access to WIC benefits.

Our results suggest that when the household loses WIC benefits, mothers ensure that children’s consumption does not suffer. They do this by consuming less themselves, thereby providing insurance to their children. There are no impacts on other demographic groups in the household such as older siblings. These results shed light on the ways households cope with the loss of resources from WIC: Mothers reduce their own consumption in a way that protects their children. Policymakers should consider these findings when assessing the impact of WIC and similar programs, since they make clear that WIC benefits entire households, not simply the children eligible to receive it.

Marianne Bitler is a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. Janet Currie is Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Hilary W. Hoynes is Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities and Professor of Economics and Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Krista J. Ruffini is an assistant professor of economics at Georgetown University. Lisa Schulkind is an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Barton Willage is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Media Resources

Media contact:

  • Karen Nikos-Rose, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu

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