The price of a key commodity has risen to historic levels. Supply chain problems, inflation and factors beyond the control of consumers burn a hole in the pockets of families, which in some cases puts the product completely out of reach. Federal and state governments are responding by considering a rebate that would provide much-needed relief.
Such is America, of course responds to high petrol prices. But for parents of infants facing a frightening lack of infant formula? Crickets. Governments should immediately act to send money to parents with children under the age of 1, even if they are working to solve the supply problems.
The only sustainable solution, of course, is to restore the domestic supply of formula. Existing shortages were significantly exacerbated by the recall of Abbott Nutrition products in February. However, any major increase in production is likely to take months to emerge – Abbott say it would take eight to ten weeks from the time they were approved to restart their Michigan factory before cans hit the shelves – and breast milk substitutes are essential nutrition for millions of babies today.
Meanwhile, supply in the United States is low but not reset – yet many parents, especially in the lower income groups, are now prissat out. As New York Times reported, cans can be found on Ebay for $ 120; as with any moment of scarcity, wealthy families are able to throw money at the problem while lower-income families suffer. Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg writes it:
Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, said he has heard of families starting solids earlier than they would prefer, by resorting to risky homemade formula or dilute formula to get it to last longer, even though it may not provide the nutrition babies need.Some parents, he said, even feed recalled breast milk substitutes to their children despite the risks because it is the only age-appropriate food they have available. “
Many stores have now started ration formula purchases, which hypothetically should help with access. Still, families enrolled in WIC (Women, Infant and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are limited to a few brands, and transportation challenges can make it difficult for low-income parents to reach the few stores with cans on the shelves. Moreover, having to pay for hyper-expensive formula (even before the shortage prices in some areas had jumped almost 20% compared to a year ago) leaves parents with less money for other essential things like diapers or even rent.
A first response from the government should therefore be to provide funding for parents with infants. Consider it a formula discount, a baby stimulus, whatever works. To offer e.g. $ 250 a month until the lack of infant formula eases would literally save infants’ lives. There are only about 3.5 million children under the age of 1 in the United States; compared to the pandemic stimulus check or the gas discount plans, this is not a bank breaker.
There are the obvious, tired objections: what about income testing, and have we not just been through a whole mess where the extended child tax deduction expires? For the latter argument, this would be a targeted, time-limited intervention that is more akin to energy rebates than a generalized child benefit. First, one must be particularly heartless in believing that a handful of wealthy families receiving a few hundred dollars are reason not to protect the mental health of infants (and their parents).
Needs testing that the extended tax credit experiment carried out, inevitably leaving them in deep poverty – precisely the parents who need immediate support the most. If needs testing ends up being a political deal-breaker, there are pretty easy handles to pull by targeting parents who are enrolled in WIC, SNAP or Medicaid. Ideally, however, this type of program would be best managed through the Social Security Administration. We know which families have infants. Send them all the money, and send them now.
While this is happening, there are other quick steps that the administration could take. For example, FDA restrictions and high tariffs mean that the United States has minimal access to European formula stocks. This is certainly not a cure – demographer Lyman Stone, who has written industry reports on formula delivery, notes European countries are experiencing their own formula problems, albeit less serious ones – but every can helps.
Although not identical to American products, there is no reason to believe that British or German formula is fundamental inferior to US brands (EU rules are undoubtedly more intensive than FDA’s). Introducing at least a temporary permit and tariff reduction for documented European brands could be a lifeline for American parents. Something suggests that this is under consideration; said the FDA in a statement Tuesday that they “offer a streamlined process of reviewing import entry for certain products coming from foreign facilities with favorable inspection records.” Again, but European products are expensive – parents who do not currently comply with FDA restrictions can pay as much as four times per ounce compared to domestic brands. Money matters.
There has been a lot of debate about the United States’ commitment to babies and parents over the last few weeks. Well, here’s a clear and present danger, a chance for elected leaders to stand up or shut up. Sending parents money to infants does not solve the shortage of infant formula, but it will offer a net to catch the babies whose adult failure has broken down.
Elliot Haspel is an expert in childcare policy and author of the book Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and how to fix it.