WASHINGTON -- Even as the White House is criticizing so-called "big government" programs of the 1960s for failing to solve festering social problems, the General Accounting Office is boasting about one such program that works.
A new study by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, gives high marks to the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.
Funded through the Department of Agriculture, WIC provides supplementary food, nutrition education and medical referrals to eligible pregnant women, mothers and children up to age 5.
The GAO found the program extraordinarily cost-effective, generating major savings in public and private health-care costs.
One key finding, for example, estimated that WIC prenatal benefits resulted in a 25 percent reduction in babies with low birth weight, which is the major cause of infant mortality and climbing medical costs associated with chronically ill children.
That meant a savings in 1990 alone of $337 million to the federal government in reduced payments for Medicaid and other assistance programs, according to the report.
It also estimated a more dramatic savings that year of $423 million forprivate insurers, hospitals and local governments in lower costs.
The WIC program was authorized by the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to improve the health of low-income pregnant women with inadequate diets, a factor that put them at higher risk of miscarriage and other health problems.
WIC foods are delivered through a system of coupons for specific foods, such as infant formula, milk, eggs, cheese, peanut butter and cereal.
Maryland's WIC program is receiving $24.5 million in federal funds this fiscal year for food and another $7.5 million for administrative costs, according to its director, Joan H. Salim. She noted that the federal money was supplemented by $13 million in rebates on infant formula purchases from manufacturer Mead Johnson & Co.
The program reaches about 75,000 pregnant, postpartum and breast-feeding women and children under age 5, Ms. Salim said.
Tracey Hill of Lansing, Mich., used WIC coupons to get through herfirst pregnancy five years ago. Since WIC coupons didn't cover junk foods, she didn't buy them. "It made me eat better, and I learned a lot about nutrition," Ms. Hill said. "And my daughter won't eat junk food to this day. She can't miss what she never had."
However, WIC has its critics. Welfare reform advocates say that it fails to encourage self-reliance.
Given the GAO findings, supporters are seeking more money for WIC and a change in the funding formula. Now, pregnant women with family incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible, regardless of nutritional risk.
But the GAO said that funding formulas prevented 12 states and Puerto Rico (together serving 40 percent of all prenatal WIC participants) from enrolling eligible women. The formula by which the federal government doles out money to the states is incorrectly based on past participation rates rather than the number of eligible women and children, the agency said.
Overall, participation has increased from 200,000 in 1974 to 5 million in 1991, and nearly $2.8 billion has been proposed by President Bush for fiscal 1993 -- up from $2.1 billion in 1990.
Information about eligibility for the WIC program in Maryland may be obtained by calling (800) 242-4WIC.