Monday, December 7, 2009

Wal Mart and WIC EBT

Former Next Generation Speaker Jennifer Smith from Walmart testified recently before the Senate Agriculture committee on WIC and EBT. Never shy about the company's position on EBT, Ms. Smith's comments included a request that Congress mandate development of one set of operating standards for WIC EBT. She also suggested that lawmakers consider making the WIC program interoperable in the same way the SNAP program is. This would be not only a technical change along the order that the program has never seen, but it would be a cultural change for the many agencies that administer WIC. And it would come on the footsteps of the new WIC food package and other administrative changes that right now have their hands full.

Perhaps the "ask" Walmart made at the hearing was for the Congress to mandate adoption of WIC EBT. This would force Congress to supply the funding that would finally end the use of checks and vouchers in the system.

There is no doubt that operating standards are necessary to propel WIC EBT into its next generation, much in the same way that the April 2002 food stamp operating regulations transformed EBT from experimental science to the sole method of benefit distribution (although it took 12 years) in the U.S.

But going to Congress with such a concept may fall into the "be careful what you ask for" category. While Congress may grant Walmart's wish, it may do so in a way that ties the hands of the executive agency (USDA) and saddles the EBT community with a set of regulations that are so proscriptive as to make development more difficult than it has to be. For an example, Google "digital TV converter," and see how a constraining law made a relatively simple task more difficult.

And mandating conversion to WIC EBT may be nirvana for EBT processors and consultants. But is it realistic given the lack of technology resources of most WIC agencies? There certainly are a good number of states that can take on that challenge in 2010 and 2011; however, there are many more that are underfunded, overworked, and would be, frankly, overwhelmed if told to just go out and "git 'er done."

The EBT community, the states, the federal agency and the private sector, have all worked on these issues methodically for many years before Walmart became a player in WIC EBT. It has been slow, frustrating work. But imposing mandates on unprepared states may not be the best way to accelerate the process. The EBT community could find itself no longer driving the train, but being dragged behind it.

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