The Potluck

Nope, that’s not how that government program works

By: - January 13, 2020 4:48 pm

Low income pregnant women are among those who can qualify for WIC benefits. Photo illustration by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

A quote in a recent Star Tribune article about refugee relocation caught our attention. 

It’s about Beltrami County’s vote not to accept new refugees following President Donald Trump’s executive order requiring local consent for refugee resettlement. The story lays out some of the reasons why people don’t want refugees, like competition for limited government resources.  

“Anthony Rossberg, a 31-year-old resident of Blackduck, said he used to live in St. Cloud. If refugees come to Beltrami County, he said, “all of our public systems are going to be drained.” He noted that his brother in St. Cloud makes less money than he does but can’t qualify for WIC benefits for his children, given all the refugees there, while Rossberg can get those benefits in Beltrami County.” 

But that’s not how the program works. 

WIC, short for Women, Infants, and Children, is a federally-funded program administered by states that provides young, low-income families with money for food, nutrition counseling and referrals to other government services.

“An influx of new immigrants eligible for WIC in a community would not change eligibility for others in that community. WIC agencies are funded based on the number of people they serve and the eligibility rules are the same in all Minnesota communities,” Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Scott Smith wrote in an email. 

It’s not an entitlement program like the federal government’s other, large food-assistance program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — everyone who qualifies for SNAP gets it no matter the cost. Same goes for Medicaid. 

WIC could hypothetically run out of money (people were put on waiting lists for WIC decades ago), but Congress has always appropriated enough money in recent years that it’s served everyone who’s eligible. The Minnesota Department of Health, which administers WIC in the state, says more refugees wouldn’t threaten that.

With housing assistance, however, Congress has never appropriated enough money to serve all the people who need it. So in the case of public housing or Section 8 vouchers, low-income people are in competition with one another over limited resources. That’s why people spend years on waiting lists for housing assistance (and often never get it.) 

New refugees don’t get to cut the line. They receive assistance from religious non-profits for about the first 90 days. These non-profits do receive $1,175 per person from the federal government to help refugees do everything they need to do when they arrive: get from the airport to their destination, find an apartment, buy clothes, buy food, etcetera. That’s a one-time payment, which doesn’t go very far, so nonprofits must find money elsewhere to help newcomers get on their feet.

This post has been updated.  

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.