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New York City grocery cashiers haven’t been handling as many food stamps these days–that’s been front-page news. But they also have seen fewer moms paying with WIC coupons.

Since October, the number of New York metro area women enrolled in the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has dropped by 2 percent, to 340,570. WIC gives poor and middle-income pregnant women and new mothers vouchers to buy nutritious food like milk and eggs.

The drop goes against the grain nationally where WIC enrollment has been growing slightly, despite a congressional freeze on additional funding.

Unlike food stamps and Medicaid, WIC is not a legal “entitlement.” City welfare offices have no policy that refers anyone to the program. Women usually get hooked up with one of New York’s 145 WIC offices, most of which are at medical facilities, through health care referrals or neighborhood word-of-mouth.

Difficulty in picking up the coupons and being recertified–most sites are only open during business hours–may be one reason for the decline. “Many of the women in our program are being forced into the job market,” said Jacqueline Williams, who heads Kings County Hospital’s WIC operation. “They get jobs that don’t give them an hour off to receive WIC benefits.”

Fear may be another factor. Although accepting WIC was never a strike against immigrants seeking citizenship, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and State Department did hold acceptance of other public benefits against applicants at one point. The agencies reversed their policy in December 1997. Still, the word has gotten out–incorrectly–that signing up is a black mark on an immigrant’s record.

“I just talked to a gentleman whose wife won’t go on WIC, even though she’s breast-feeding,” said Betty Betz, WIC director at Montefiore Hospital, which serves only about 10,000 WIC clients, even though they are budgeted for 11,400. “I told him this is important for their child’s health, but she does not want to jeopardize her ability to become a citizen.”