By Antonia Violante & Allison Yates-Berg

Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people have lost their jobs or are finding it even harder to stretch their paycheck to meet their needs. Many are finding that they need social safety net programs to ensure the health and well-being of their families, often for the first time. One of these programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), is a lifesaving, evidence-based safety net program for pregnant women and children from birth to age 5. To protect families’ health during the pandemic and support the many new participants, state WIC agencies have received waivers to enroll and issue benefits to participants remotely and offer more flexibility in food packages. But there’s likely another positive impact of these waivers, too: they may reduce hidden costs to participants’ time and attention.

In previous work exploring WIC programs, we learned that many participants appreciate the support from WIC, but occasionally miss out on their benefits or stop participating altogether when the program fails to align with constraints to their time and attention. Unfortunately, those who stand to benefit from WIC the most are the families who are the most temporally and cognitively taxed, as they’re forced to deal with urgent demands (e.g. paying this month’s rent, preparing tomorrow’s meals), at the expense of events further in the future, like finding a ride to next week’s WIC appointment. In a global pandemic environment fraught with health and economic issues, WIC participants are likely to be even more taxed as they are looking for new work in a job market with more limited opportunities, caring for family members affected by COVID-19, or consumed with worry about whether they will be infected.

Our recent work in California further affirms that service delivery, like those provided by WIC, must take into account the ‘bandwidth tax’ levied on participants living in the context of chronic scarcity—and dig deeper to understand even those costs which may seem small or invisible. Before the pandemic swept the country, we were working in California to design and test behaviorally informed interventions to help get participants to their recertification appointments, particularly at the one-year mark, a crucial drop-off point for many. We found that making preparation for appointments salient with timely text message reminders helped get more people to their WIC appointments. We also found that a Roadmap of the program, designed to highlight what to expect from WIC in the first two years of a child’s life, would benefit from tweaks to its delivery to better account for hidden costs to participants’ bandwidth.

The pandemic created an opportunity for even larger changes to program policy and design that can account for and reduce costs to participants’ bandwith. Waivers allowing more flexibility in the food package and extended benefits issuance are changes to WIC service delivery in line with what we know works to improve access to and use of beneficial programs. More flexibility in the food package saves families from multiple trips to different grocery stores when they find that certain WIC products are sold out. Allowing families to receive four months of WIC benefits at a time reduces the number of times they must re-up their benefits at the WIC agency – giving them back time and attention, while keeping them connected to the program. Now is an opportune time for policymakers to explore the impact of current ‘temporary’ changes and consider the possibility of making them fixtures of the WIC program, as they may further benefit families who will continue to experience limitations and ‘taxes’ on their time and attention after the pandemic is over.

Our new report provides important lessons from our work with WIC agencies, as well as guidance for state and local agencies as they take on new initiatives like these and more, as they strive to serve families at this critical time and beyond.

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