By Annika McGinnis
WASHINGTON, Sept 19 (Reuters) - A government nutrition program for pregnant mothers and small children has not kept pace with technology and U.S. poverty experts say its paper voucher system is driving low-income women away from the program when they need it most.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has seen a sharp drop in participation since 2010, unlike food stamps and other anti-poverty programs that ballooned during the 2007-9 recession and the economic recovery that followed, government figures show.
"WIC providers are tearing their hair, beating their chests, 'what are they doing wrong?'" said Laurie True, California WIC Association director.
Poverty experts say the shrinking demand does not reflect less need. They are pushing for faster changes to an outdated, cumbersome distribution process they say stigmatizes recipients.
Participants complain of customers "shaming" them in grocery lines, said Sarah Monje, California's Native American Health Center WIC director.
"I can feel the aura: 'Oh my god, this girl is taking forever,'" said WIC recipient Marquel Davis of Austin, Texas.
With a generation of Americans "used to getting everything on their smartphones," True said, WIC is still "stuck in the hands-on experience."
"That doesn't make the program as attractive to people who may be on the border lines, the working poor and very busy - most of our participants work at least one job," she said.
Congress mandated in 2010 that WIC switch to electronic benefit cards by 2020. All but nine U.S. states still rely on paper vouchers that program directors say hold up grocery-store lines and embarrass mothers.
Davis, 26, said it was a hassle trying to redeem her WIC checks before Texas switched to an electronic system several years ago. The program pays only for specified foods sold in certain quantities.
"You've got to separate [your groceries] and make sure it's the right one, right size, and on top of that, you got to sign and they got to initial," Davis said. "It's just hectic, especially if you have a kid shopping with you and you're trying to get home."
WIC gives low-income pregnant, post-partum or breastfeeding women and kids up to age five vouchers worth about $43 each month for formula and healthy foods that adhere to federal nutrition requirements, such as limiting added sugar in yogurt and mandating that bread include whole wheat flour.
The program requires recipients to attend classes on eating well and breastfeeding.
Though WIC grew fairly steadily since its inception in 1972, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows it shrank 10.6 percent between fiscal year 2010 and May 2014.
Staff members "don't have a sense of declining need in their communities," said analyst Zoe Neuberger of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a poverty-focused think tank.
Participants dropped from 9.2 million to 8.2 million from 2010 to May, decreasing in every state and the District of Columbia, according to USDA. In Georgia, caseload plummeted 46 percent since 2009.
Conversely, food stamp enrollment skyrocketed from 28.2 million in 2008 to 47.6 million in 2013 under expansions in President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package, though it fell to 46.2 million in May after benefits expired last November.
But the smaller, more targeted WIC started shrinking years earlier and to a greater extent relative to enrollment, USDA data shows.
The social stigma, always a factor for some people, was accentuated by a distribution system largely unchanged in four decades, directors said.
Many women have switched to food stamps, which use a debit-like card but lack such WIC benefits as affording expensive baby formula, feeding children healthier food and learning workplace breastfeeding rights, directors said.
Being required to attend WIC advising sessions every one to three months can be a problem for low-income workers.
Those include illegal immigrants, who may be deterred over fear of an immigration crackdown, New York-based nonprofit Community Food Advocates co-founder Agnes Molnar said. The WIC program does not require proof of citizenship, though state or tribal residency is required.
Michael Osur, who runs 18 WIC clinics in southern California's Riverside County, saw an almost 40 percent drop in the percentage of people requesting materials in Spanish from 2007 to 2013.
Lingering effects from last October's government shutdown, when clinics shuttered or scraped by on reserve funds, also hurt WIC, National WIC Association CEO Douglas Greenaway said.
If caseload continues to drop, Congress will cut funding and clinics will close, consolidate and limit overtime and weekend services, True said.
In California, Osur was opening mobile neighborhood clinics, insisting many women were neglecting critical help.
"I think the need is there," he said. "We've just got to find a way to reach them." (Reporting by Annika McGinnis; Editing by Caren Bohan and Doina Chiacu)