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Agency Downplayed WIC's Merits, G.A.O. Asserts

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Washington--The Agriculture Department unduly revised a $5.9-million, six-year study highlighting the benefits of its federal food program for low-income pregnant women and children, according to the General Accounting Office.

In a report chronicling the u.s.d.a.'s handling of a 1986 evaluation of the $1.9-billion Women, Infants, and Children program, the g.a.o. says that the agency deleted "the original chapter and executive summaries" and replaced them with a "compendium" of results. The g.a.o. was told that agency reviewers thought the research team's summary portrayed wic "more favorably than justified by the data."

But g.a.o. investigators found the research team had reached "appropriate conclusions" based on the study data and "correctly reported strong, positive impacts of wic." They added that the summary was more accurate than the compendium.

The g.a.o. noted that the original summary had said wic "improves the diet of pregnant women and children, adds to maternal weight gain, increases the use of prenatal care, and reduces preterm deliveries."

The compendium "contained no conclusions on wic's impact," used "inconsistent criteria" to summarize study results, and contained "misleading statements about some of the data," according to the report.

As a result of the rewrites, "protracted" reviews, and other delays, it says, the study took 4 years longer to produce and cost $2 million more than anticipated.

The g.a.o. also faulted the department for not proceeding with a follow-up study to explore indications that wic benefits could spur "improved brain growth and potential improvement in behavioral and cognitive performance" in children.

A u.s.d.a. statement issued last week at a joint hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Select Committee on Hunger said the intent of the revisions "was not, as g.a.o. implies, to understate the results or mislead the reader."

The agency also argued that technical flaws had derailed the follow-up and outlined plans for a "technically superior" study.

But Birge S. Watkins, the deputy assistant secretary for food and consumer services, said he found "no fault" with the g.a.o.'s main findings and pledged to work with the Congress to ensure fair and timely evaluations.

"Problems associated with attempts to replace the excutive summary and delay in reviews will not occur again," he said. "It's simply no way to do business."

Mr. Watkins also cited President Bush's "strong support of the wic program and of its significant investment in the next generation."

An aide to the House panel was hopeful the Bush Administration's stance will translate into more support for wic, which now serves fewer than half those eligible.

"What's significant is that we do not have an Administration this time that is fundamentally and philosophically opposed to poverty programs," and one that "supports and endorses" wic, the aide said.

--dc

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