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National and State Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility and Program Reach in 2020

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Breastfeeding
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Participation Rates
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These graphics, the latest in a series of annual reports on WIC eligibility, present 2020 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 graphics also provide estimates by state and U.S. territory and by race and ethnicity.

Key findings
  • ​The estimates presented in these graphics were generated using a new and updated methodology and should not be compared directly with previous estimates.
  • The average monthly WIC-eligible population totaled 12.51 million in calendar year 2020, essentially unchanged from the revised estimate of 12.50 million in 2019.
  • In the average month of 2020, WIC served an estimated 50.2 percent of those eligible for WIC, a statistically insignificant decrease from the revised estimate for 2019 (50.5 percent).
  • Consistent with the results from the past decade, the coverage rates for WIC-eligible infants and non-breastfeeding postpartum women were highest among WIC participant subgroups in 2020, while the coverage rate for WIC-eligible children continued to lag behind other groups.
  • Coverage rates were highest for Hispanic (64 percent) WIC-eligible individuals and lowest for non-Hispanic White WIC-eligible individuals (38 percent).​

Flowchart 1:WIC Eligibility Estimates, 2016–2020

Each year, FNS estimates the number of eligible individuals for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) during an average month of the calendar year. FNS uses estimates of the number of individuals 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 2016–2020 estimates presented in these graphics, FNS enhanced the methodologies used to produce the eligibility estimates. The national-level estimates use the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS-ASEC) 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 (ACS), and the state’s share of the national total are weighted to the CPS-based estimates.

Figure 1: National WIC eligibility and coverage rates by year and participant category

In an average month of 2020, an estimated 12.5 million people were eligible to receive WIC benefits. Of that group, 6.3 million people participated in the program, meaning the share of eligible people who participated in WIC (the coverage rate) was 50 percent.

In 2020, 82 percent of the 1.9 million infants eligible for WIC in the nation were participating in WIC, 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 numbers of children eligible for WIC at each age from age 1 through 4 are roughly equal—with 2.0 to 2.1 million children eligible at each year of age—but the portion of eligible people participating in WIC drops steadily as children get older, from 57 percent for 1-year-olds to 24 percent for 4-year-olds.

The coverage rate for pregnant women who are eligible for WIC (46 percent) is lower than for eligible postpartum breastfeeding women (60 percent) and non-breastfeeding women (82 percent).

Figure 2: National WIC eligibility and participation over time

These estimates are the latest in a series of WIC eligibility and coverage rates 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 2020 because of changes to the underlying data sources and enhanced 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 51 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2019 before increasing slightly to 49 percent in 2020.

The overall coverage rate (the share of eligible people who receive WIC benefits) generally declined from 55 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2020. The relative order of coverage rates by participant category has remained consistent from 2016 to 2020. 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 by race and Hispanic/Latino ethnicity over time

In 2020, 4.8 million White-only non-Hispanic people, 4.0 million Hispanic/Latino people, 2.6 million Black-only non-Hispanic people, and 1.0 million non-Hispanic people of other races or multiple races were eligible for WIC. The number of eligible individuals has generally declined or stayed flat across all racial and ethnic groups between 2016 and 2020. White-only non-Hispanic people had the sharpest decline in eligible individuals from 5.6 million in 2016 to 4.8 million in 2020.

Coverage rates for Hispanic/Latino people were consistently higher than coverage rates for Black-only non-Hispanic people and White-only non-Hispanic people across all years. In 2020, the coverage rate among Hispanic/Latino people (64 percent) was significantly higher than the coverage rate for Black-only non-Hispanic people (50 percent) and White-only non-Hispanic people (38 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 2020.

Coverage rates have generally declined between 2016 to 2020 for all racial and ethnic groups except for non-Hispanic people who identify as two or more races or a race other than Black only or White only. The coverage rate for this group declined from 61 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2017 before increasing to 60 percent in 2018 then steadily declining to 56 percent in 2020. For Hispanic/Latino people, the coverage rate declined from 72 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2020. For Black-only non-Hispanic people, the coverage rate declined from 53 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2020. For White-only non-Hispanic people, the coverage rate declined from 41 percent in 2016 to 38 percent in 2020.

In the figure below, we use the term “Hispanic/Latino” for consistency with the terminology used in the CPS-ASEC 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.

Figure 4: Demographic characteristics of infants and children eligible for WIC in 2020

Among all infants and children eligible for WIC in 2020, 3.9 million were White-only non-Hispanic, 3.2 million were Hispanic/Latino, 2.1 million were Black-only non-Hispanic, and 0.8 million were non-Hispanic people of other races or multiple races. Hispanic/Latino infants and children had the highest coverage rate in 2020 (62 percent). The coverage rate was estimated at 47 percent for Black-only non-Hispanic infants and children, 35 percent for White-only non-Hispanic infants and children, and 59 percent for non-Hispanic infants and children of other races and multiple races.

Seventy-seven percent of infants and children eligible for WIC in 2020 lived in households with four or more members. Only 5 percent lived in households with two members (one infant or child living with one adult).

Fifty-seven percent of infants and children who were eligible for WIC in 2020 lived in two-parent households, while 37 percent lived in single-parent households, and 6 percent lived with a caretaker who is not a parent. About 6 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 1 percent lived with a family member currently serving in the military. About 49 percent of infants and children eligible for WIC were female and 51 percent were male.

Individuals 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, more commonly known as food stamps, 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, 37 percent were enrolled in Medicaid but did not receive SNAP or TANF cash benefits, 31 percent participated in both Medicaid and SNAP (but did not receive financial help from TANF), 11 percent participated in SNAP (but were not aided by Medicaid and did not receive TANF cash aid), and 4 percent participated in all three of these programs. The remaining 17 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: Coverage rates by state in 2020

The WIC coverage rate varies substantially across states. In 2020, nine states had an overall WIC coverage rate (across all demographic groups eligible for WIC) below 40 percent, while three states, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, had a coverage rate over 60 percent. Puerto Rico had a coverage rate of 81 percent. With only one possible exception, the coverage rates for the demographic groups 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 Maine and New Hampshire, where coverage rates are the same for children and women. This may be a result of the smaller sample sizes in Maine and New Hampshire.

Confidence intervals can be computed to calculate different levels of certainty in state coverage rates compared to national coverage rates. The figure 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 than the national coverage rate.

Figure 6: WIC eligibility and participation by state over time

In 2020, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming had the fewest numbers of people eligible for WIC (with fewer than 25,000 eligible people in each of these states), 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 Utah (35 percent) and highest in New Mexico (68 percent) and Puerto Rico (86 percent). North Dakota had the lowest eligibility rate across all states between 2016 and 2019 and had the second lowest eligibility rate, behind Utah, in 2020. New Mexico consistently had the highest eligibility rate across all states between 2016 and 2020.

Twenty-five states and Puerto Rico had a 2020 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 2020. This may be partially attributable to changes in eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Maine had a decline in coverage rates of 11 percentage points or more between 2016 and 2020. Across all states, the District of Columbia (DC) had the greatest increase (11 percentage points) in its coverage rate between 2019 and 2020. This is a result of participation in DC increasing while eligibility decreased.

Figure 7: Coverage rates by state and by race and Hispanic/Latino ethnicity in 2020

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 39 percent in Alaska to virtually full coverage in DC and Vermont. States also vary in the relative coverage rates of different racial/ethnic groups within the state. For example, in Oklahoma, coverage rates are similar for Hispanic/Latino people (57 percent) and non-Hispanic people who are either Black or identify as a race other than White (59 percent). However, in Arizona, the WIC coverage rate for Hispanic/Latino people (54 percent) is lower than for non-Hispanic Black people and people of races other than White (59 percent).

A range of uncertainty around the coverage rate estimates exists because the eligibility figure 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 new methodology uses 2 years of ACS 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 40 and 42 percent. When confidence intervals for different subgroups do not overlap, we can be 95 percent confident 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.

Updated: 01/09/2023