In 2017, an estimated 14.1 million people were eligible to receive benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in a given month. Of that group, 7.2 million people participated in the program, meaning the share of eligible people who participated in WIC (the coverage rate) was 51 percent.
National WIC eligibility and coverage rates by year and participant category
In 2017, 2.2 million infants (56 percent of all infants in the United States) were eligible for WIC. Seventy-nine percent of eligible infants participated in the program, meaning their WIC benefits were received or picked up. (People who are enrolled but whose benefits are not received or picked up are not counted as participants.)
The number of people eligible for WIC at each age from birth through age 4 is roughly equal according to 2017 data, but coverage rates drop steadily as children get older, from 79 percent for infants to 25 percent for four-year-olds.
Among eligible postpartum mothers, the coverage rate is much higher for those who do not breastfeed (96 percent) compared with those who do (56 percent). The coverage rate for pregnant women who are eligible for WIC is lower than for postpartum breastfeeding women, at 45 percent.
From 2005 to 2017, infants and postpartum non-breastfeeding mothers have consistently had higher coverage rates than other groups.
National WIC eligibility and participation over time
Since 2005, the estimated number of people eligible for WIC has fluctuated between a low of 13.8 million in 2007 to a high of 15.1 million in 2015. In 2017, the estimated number of people eligible for WIC was 14.1 million.
The WIC eligibility rate, or the share of the total number of people in the demographic group who are eligible for WIC, has fluctuated between a low of 49 percent in 2007 and a high of 56 percent in 2014 and 2015. Until recently, eligibility rates have been higher for infants than for children largely due to a longer certification period being used for infants; now, most states use a 12-month certification period for children as well as for infants.
The overall WIC coverage rate (the share of people eligible for WIC who receive their benefits) generally increased between 2005 (when it was 56.5 percent) and 2011 (when it was 63.5 percent). Since 2011, the overall WIC coverage rate has generally declined, sitting just over 51 percent as of 2017. The coverage rate declined across all the demographic groups eligible for WIC: women, infants, and children.
Among children, coverage rates are consistently lower for older children than younger children; 4-year-olds have the lowest coverage rates.
Changes in coverage rates across the years may be caused by changes in the number of people eligible for WIC, the number of people participating in WIC, or both. For infants, the coverage rate declined from 90 percent in 2012 to 79 percent in 2017 because of a reduction in the number of participants; the number of infants estimated to be eligible was about the same in both years.
National WIC eligibility by race and ethnicity over time
In 2017, the people eligible for WIC included 5.3 million non-Hispanic white people, 4.9 million Hispanic individuals, 2.4 million non-Hispanic black people, and 1.4 million non-Hispanic people of other races or multiple races. The coverage rate (the share of eligible people who receive WIC benefits) is approximately the same for non-Hispanic black people (59 percent) and Hispanic people (60 percent). The coverage rate is estimated to be 41 percent for non-Hispanic white people.
Before 2017, the coverage rate for Hispanic people was higher than for non-Hispanic black people. The coverage rate for Hispanic people declined 9 percentage points over the period, from 69 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2017. The decline in the coverage rate of Hispanic people was caused almost entirely by a reduction in the number of Hispanic participants; the number of Hispanic people eligible for WIC is almost the same in 2017 as it was in 2005. Between 2005 and 2017, the coverage rate also declined for non-Hispanic white people (a drop of 6 percentage points) and non-Hispanic people reporting a race other than white or black or reporting multiple races (a decline of 4 percentage points). For non-Hispanic black people, the WIC coverage rate increased 3 percentage points between 2005 and 2017.
We use the term “Hispanic” for consistency with the terminology used in the surveys that underlie the eligibility estimates. “Non-Hispanic white people” include non-Hispanic people who do not report identifying with any race other than white. “Non-Hispanic black people” include non-Hispanic people who do not report identifying with any race other than black.
Demographic characteristics of infants and children eligible for WIC in 2017
Among all infants and children eligible for WIC in 2017, about 38 percent were non-Hispanic and white, 35 percent were Hispanic, 18 percent were non-Hispanic and black, and 10 percent were of other races or multiple races. Hispanic infants and children had the highest coverage rate in 2017 (60 percent), with the coverage rate estimated at 55 percent for non-Hispanic black infants and children, 38 percent for non-Hispanic white infants and children, and 44 percent for non-Hispanic children of other races and multiple races.
Twenty-five percent of eligible infants and children in 2017 lived in households with six or more members, and about 22 percent lived in households with five members. Only 5 percent lived in households with only two members.
Fifty-nine percent of infants and children who were eligible for WIC in 2017 lived in two-parent households; 36 percent lived in single-parent households. About 5 percent of eligible infants and children lived with a caretaker who is not a parent. About 7 percent of WIC-eligible infants and children lived with a family member who served in the US Armed Forces, and about 2 percent lived with a family member currently serving in the military.
Coverage rates by state in 2017
The WIC coverage rate (the share of people eligible for WIC who receive benefits) varies substantially across states. In 2017, four states had an overall WIC coverage rate (across all demographic groups eligible for WIC) below 40 percent, while two states (California and Maryland) had coverage rates over 60 percent. Within each state, the coverage rates for the demographic groups followed the national pattern: infants had the highest coverage rates, women had lower coverage rates, and children had the lowest coverage rates.
National WIC Eligibility and Participation by States, 2005–17
In 2017, Vermont, Wyoming, and North Dakota had the smallest numbers of people eligible for WIC (with fewer than 25,000 eligible people in each of these states); California and Texas had the largest numbers of people eligible for WIC (more than a million in each state).
The eligibility rate (the portion of all infants, young children, pregnant women, and potentially-eligible postpartum women eligible for the program) was lowest in North Dakota (34 percent) and highest in New Mexico (68 percent) and Puerto Rico (86 percent).
From 2005 to 2017, states show different patterns of changes in WIC eligibility and participation and in the WIC coverage rate. In 23 states, the 2017 coverage rate is within 5 percentage points of the 2005 coverage rate, which may be because of relative stability in both the number of people eligible for WIC and the number of WIC participants or because of both numbers changing by about the same percentage. However, 14 states are estimated to have coverage rates in 2017 more than 10 percentage points below the coverage rate in 2005. Only Puerto Rico showed a large increase in the coverage rate between 2005 and 2017 In Puerto Rico, the number of people eligible for WIC has declined substantially since 2005 because the population has declined; the number of participants has declined by a smaller share, leading to an increase in the coverage rate from 71 percent in 2005 to 80 percent in 2017.