Life strategies: Motherhood, urban poverty, and the WIC program in Syracuse, New York

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Robert A. Rubinstein


Motherhood, Urban poverty, WIC, Syracuse, New York, Infant mortality, Life strategies, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), Public health bureaucracy, Strategies of the poor, Metaphors and frames of reference

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology | Social Welfare | Urban Studies and Planning | Women's Studies


This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Syracuse WIC program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Child. In it I focus on the perspectives of both WIC providers and clients to explore a program enrollment problem. In Syracuse, among low income women who live in the city and who are at risk for poor birth outcomes, participation in the program is inconsistent and less than expected when compared to other regional and national WIC programs. At the time of my research more than half of the county's eligible population was not using the program. Using a metaphor analysis, this dissertation describes different frames of reference held by WIC providers and potential clients to explain why there is discord between what WIC providers aim to accomplish with their clients and what clients expect from the program.

The conclusions of this dissertation suggest that we must look beyond "barriers to access" such as lack of transportation, bad clinic location, limited hours of operation, etcetera in order to fully understand the ways in which women use (or do not use) the WIC program. While these features may influence how and when individual women use WIC, they do not explain all cases of disuse; a barrier to access that causes one woman to quit the program has no effect on another woman despite the fact that the barrier exists for both of them. I found WIC-use to be a fluid concept, meaningful to women in ways quite different from what is presented in public health arenas, and manifest in an on/off approach to participation. I found that women will use WIC in times of greatest need, when the benefit of receiving checks outweighs the trouble of waiting in the clinic or standing in a crowded grocery store check-out line, and when substitutes for WIC benefits, especially infant formula, are not available.


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