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National and State Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility and Program Reach in 2021

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Research, Analysis & Background
Research
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Assessing/Improving Operations
General/Other
Participation Characteristics
Participation Rates
Program Access
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PDF Icon Summary (452.98 KB)
PDF Icon Appendices (Vol. 2) (10.42 MB)

This report, the latest in a series of annual reports on WIC eligibility, presents 2021 national and state estimates of the number of people eligible for WIC benefits and the percents of the eligible population and the US population covered by the program, including estimates by participant category.

The analysis also provides estimates by FNS region, by state and territory, by race and ethnicity, and, for the first time in this series of reports, by urbanicity.

Key Findings

  • The average monthly WIC-eligible population totaled 12.13 million in calendar year 2021.
  • In the average month of 2021, WIC served an estimated 51.2 percent of those eligible for WIC, which is slightly lower than the revised coverage rate in 2020 (52.0 percent).
  • Coverage rates were highest for Hispanic (58.1 percent) WIC-eligible individuals and lowest for non-Hispanic White (44.2 percent) WIC-eligible individuals.
  • Nationally, more than 50 percent of WIC-eligible SNAP and Medicaid recipients do not participate in WIC.

Interactive Graphics

Figure 1. National WIC Eligibility and Coverage Rates by Year and Participant Category, 2016-2021

In an average month of 2021, an estimated 12.1 million people were eligible to participate in WIC. Of that group, 6.2 million people participated in the program, meaning the share of eligible people who participated in WIC (the coverage rate) was 51 percent.

In 2021, 78 percent of the 1.8 million infants eligible for WIC in the U.S. participated in WIC, meaning they received their WIC benefits. (People who are enrolled in the program but do not receive their WIC benefits are not counted as participants.)

The numbers of children eligible for WIC at each age from age 1 through 4 are roughly equal—with 1.9 to 2.1 million children eligible at each year of age—but the portion of eligible children participating in WIC drops steadily as children get older, from 64 percent for 1-year-olds to 25 percent for 4-year-olds.

The coverage rate for pregnant women who are eligible for WIC (44 percent) is lower than for eligible postpartum breastfeeding women (61 percent) and non-breastfeeding women (77 percent).


Figure 2. National WIC Eligibility and Participation Over Time, 2016-2021

These estimates are the latest in a series of WIC eligibility and coverage rate estimates produced for FNS. The estimates for years prior to 2016 (not shown in these graphics) are not completely consistent with the estimates for 2016 to 2021 because of changes to the underlying data sources and updated methodologies.

The overall WIC eligibility rate (the percentage of the total population of infants, children aged 1–4, pregnant women, and postpartum women who are estimated to be eligible for the program) declined from 52 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2021.

The overall coverage rate (the share of eligible people who receive WIC benefits) declined from 54 percent in 2016 to 51 percent in 2021. The relative order of coverage rates by participant category has remained consistent from 2016 to 2021. Across all years, coverage rates were highest for infants and postpartum non-breastfeeding women. Coverage rates for children (with all children aged 1 through 4 considered as a group) were consistently lowest.


Figure 3. National WIC Eligibility and Participation by Race and Hispanic/Latino Ethnicity Over Time, 2016–2021

In 2021, 4.4 million Hispanic/Latino people, 4.0 million White-only non-Hispanic people, 2.7 million Black-only non-Hispanic people, and 1.0 million non-Hispanic people who self-identified as two or more races or self-identified as a race other than Black or White were eligible for WIC. The number of eligible people generally declined or stayed flat across all racial and ethnic groups between 2016 and 2020. The number of Hispanic/Latino and Black-only non-Hispanic people eligible for WIC increased between 2020 and 2021, while the number of White-only non-Hispanic people declined. The number of non-Hispanic people who self-identified as two or more races or self-identified as a race other than Black or White eligible for WIC remained relatively stable between 2016 and 2021.

Coverage rates for Hispanic/Latino people were consistently higher than coverage rates for all other racial and ethnic groups across all years. In 2021, the coverage rate among Hispanic/Latino people (58 percent) was substantially higher than the coverage rate for Black-only non-Hispanic people (49 percent) and White-only non-Hispanic people (44 percent). The relative order of coverage rates for Hispanic/Latino people, Black-only non-Hispanic people, and White-only non-Hispanic people has remained consistent from 2016 to 2021.

Coverage rates have generally declined between 2016 to 2021 for Hispanic/Latino people and Black-only non-Hispanic people. In general, these changes occurred because the decline in the numbers of Hispanic/Latino and Black-only, non-Hispanic WIC participants was larger than the change in eligible people. For Hispanic/Latino people, the coverage rate declined from 65 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2021. For Black-only non-Hispanic people, the coverage rate declined from 57 percent in 2016 to 49 percent in 2021. Coverage rates for White-only non-Hispanic people have remained relatively consistent across that period and coverage rates for non-Hispanic people who self-identified as two or more races or self-identified as a race other than Black or White have generally increased. For White-only non-Hispanic people, the coverage rate declined from 44 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2019 and 2020 before increasing again to 44 percent in 2021. The coverage rate for non-Hispanic people who self-identified as two or more races or self-identified as a race other than Black or White increased from 49 percent in 2016 to 56 percent in 2021.

In figure 3, we use the term “Hispanic/Latino” for consistency with the terminology used in the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement survey. “White-only, not Hispanic” people include non-Hispanic people who do not report identifying with any race other than White. “Black-only, not Hispanic” people include non-Hispanic people who do not report identifying with any race other than Black. “Two or More Races or Other, Not Hispanic” people self-identify as a two or more races or self-identify as a race other than Black or White.


Figure 4. Demographic Characteristics of Infants and Children Eligible for WIC, 2021

Among all infants and children eligible for WIC in 2021, 36 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 33 percent were White-only non-Hispanic, 22 percent were Black-only non-Hispanic, and 9 percent were non-Hispanic people who self-identified as two or more races or self-identified as a race other than Black or White.

Seventy-seven percent of infants and children eligible for WIC in 2021 lived in households with four or more members. Only 4 percent lived in households with two members (one infant or child living with one adult).

Sixty-one percent of infants and children who were eligible for WIC in 2021 lived in two-parent households, while 35 percent lived in single-parent households, and 5 percent lived with a caretaker who is not a parent. About 5 percent of infants and children eligible for WIC lived with a family member who had ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and about 2 percent lived with a family member currently serving in the military. About 50 percent of infants and children eligible for WIC were female, and 50 percent were male.

People may be adjunctively income-eligible for WIC if they or certain household members can document participation in Medicaid (which provides health coverage), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which supplements a family’s resources for purposes of buying food), or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program (which provides cash aid and funding for other services). Among all the infants and children eligible for WIC (income-eligible and adjunctively income-eligible), 40 percent were enrolled in Medicaid but did not receive SNAP or TANF cash benefits, 37 percent participated in both Medicaid and SNAP (but did not receive financial help from TANF), 9 percent participated in SNAP (but were not aided by Medicaid and did not receive TANF cash aid), and 3 percent participated in all three of these programs. The remaining 11 percent of infants and children eligible for WIC did not receive benefits from any of these three programs (although they might have participated in other State-administered means-tested programs that confer automatic income eligibility).


Figure 5. WIC Coverage Rates by State and Participant Category, 2021

The WIC coverage rate varied substantially across states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, in 2021. State rates ranged from a high of 72 percent in Vermont to a low of 35 percent in Arkansas and New Mexico. Puerto Rico had a higher coverage rate (88 percent) than any state. Seven states had an overall WIC coverage rate (across all demographic groups eligible for WIC) below 40 percent. With a few exceptions, the coverage rates for the participant categories followed the national pattern: Infants had the highest coverage rates, women had lower coverage rates, and children (combining all ages 1 through 4) had lower coverage rates than the combined group of pregnant and postpartum women. The possible exceptions are Massachusetts and South Dakota, where coverage rates are slightly higher for children compared with women.

Confidence intervals can be computed to calculate different levels of certainty in state coverage rates compared with national coverage rates. Figure 5 displays up or down arrows on a state’s coverage rate if the selected state’s coverage rate is significantly higher (up arrow) or lower (down arrow) than the national coverage rate for the selected population based on the 95 percent confidence interval. In such instances, we can be 95 percent confident that the true coverage rate for that state is significantly different from the national coverage rate.


Figure 6. WIC Eligibility and Participation by State Over Time, 2016–2021

In 2021, across all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, four state agencies (District of Columbia, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) had fewer than 25,000 people eligible for WIC, reflecting their small total populations; California and Texas had the largest numbers of people eligible for WIC (more than 1.3 million in each state), reflecting their large populations.

The eligibility rate was lowest in North Dakota (29 percent) and highest in New Mexico (66 percent) and Puerto Rico (81 percent). North Dakota had the lowest eligibility rate across all states in 2016, 2017, 2020, and 2021 and had the second lowest eligibility rate, behind Utah, in 2018 and 2019. New Mexico consistently had the highest eligibility rate across all states between 2016 and 2021.

Twenty-four states and Puerto Rico had a 2021 coverage rate within 5 percentage points of their 2016 coverage rate, which may be attributable to the relative stability in both the number of people eligible for WIC and the number of WIC participants, or because both numbers changed by about the same percentage over the period. The remainder of states had coverage rate changes of 5 percentage points or more between 2016 and 2021. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri had a decline in coverage rates of 12 percentage points or more between 2016 and 2021. Across all states, Vermont had the greatest increase (14 percentage points) in its coverage rate between 2016 and 2021. This is a result of a steeper decline in eligibility compared to the decline in participation in Vermont during this period. These changes may be partially attributable to changes in eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized FNS to issue waivers to provide flexibilities to help state agencies continue to safely serve WIC participants during the pandemic. Estimates for 2021 are likely influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and waivers available because of the public health emergency.


Figure 7. WIC Coverage Rates by State and Race and Hispanic/Latino Ethnicity, 2021

Although Hispanic/Latino people overall have a higher WIC coverage rate than non-Hispanic people, and White-only non-Hispanic people generally have a lower coverage rate than other non-Hispanic people, coverage rates within a racial/ethnic group vary widely across states. For example, coverage rates for Hispanic/Latino people ranged from 34 percent in New Mexico to virtually full coverage in Vermont. States also vary in the relative coverage rates of different racial/ethnic groups within the state. For example, in Colorado, coverage rates are similar for Hispanic/Latino people (49 percent) and non-Hispanic people who are either Black or identify as a race other than White (47 percent). However, in Arizona, the WIC coverage rate for Hispanic/Latino people (50 percent) is lower than for non-Hispanic people who are either Black or identify as a race other than White (63 percent).

A range of uncertainty prevails in the coverage rate estimates because the eligibility estimates are based on survey data. This range of uncertainty (or confidence interval) can be large, especially for small states; therefore, differences between state-level coverage rate estimates should be interpreted with caution. The 2021 eligibility estimates use 2 years of American Community Survey estimates to help improve the overall confidence in the state-level eligibility estimates and coverage rates.

Confidence intervals can be computed to calculate different levels of certainty. At the national level, we can be 95 percent confident the true coverage rate for children is between 42 and 44 percent. When confidence intervals for different subgroups do not overlap, we can be 95 percent confident that one group’s coverage rate is higher or lower than the others. For example, we can be 95 percent confident the coverage rate of Hispanic/Latino children is higher than the coverage rate of White only, non-Hispanic children. Wider confidence intervals for a particular group indicate more uncertainty about the precise estimates and result from smaller sample sizes for that group.


Figure 8. WIC Eligibility Estimation Methodology, 2021

Each year, FNS estimates the number of people eligible for WIC during an average month of the calendar year. FNS uses estimates of the number of people eligible for WIC and the number likely to participate to better predict future funding needs, measure WIC performance, and identify potentially unmet nutrition assistance needs.

For the 2016–2021 estimates presented in these graphics, FNS continued to incorporate improvements to the methodology used to produce the eligibility estimates (see chapter 6 of volume I of the report for more information on the improved methodologies). The national-level estimates use the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement to produce preliminary counts of the number of eligible infants, children, and pregnant women. These counts are then refined through a series of adjustment factors designed to reflect WIC eligibility requirements and population trends more closely. The number of infants eligible for WIC is then used as the starting point to estimate the number of postpartum women eligible for WIC. Separate estimates are produced for breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women because certification periods and benefits vary for these two groups. State-level estimates are based on the American Community Survey, and the state’s share of the national total is weighted to the estimates based on the Current Population Survey. Estimates for the U.S. territories served by WIC were created using the same methods and adjustments used to develop the national-level estimates.

Page updated: May 07, 2024