I make a six figure income, so why did the government just give me $750 in food stamps?
Two of my children recently received something in the mail called a Electronic Pandemic Benefit Transfer debit card, known as P-EBT, each charged $375.
The cover letter explained that the money was for K-12 schoolchildren enrolled in the National School Meals Program – free and reduced lunch — during the 2020-2021 school year but who missed these meals while schools were closed due to COVID-19.
But here’s the problem: my income exceeds the eligibility cap for such a thing, and yet my children weren’t actually enrolled in the program during the 2020-2021 school year…because they weren’t even enrolled at all in public schools!
They attended a private school and we prepared or paid for their lunches ourselves.
I smelled the smell of government waste, tracked it to its source, and this is what I found:
In early May 2020, P-EBT cards began being mailed to thousands of eligible students in Alabama, according to a news Release from the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which oversees the distribution of the cards with assistance from the Alabama Department of Education.
The state announced last April that a second round of benefits would be issued and notices posted in June, Augustand December said additional funds would be distributed statewide.
A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Human Resources told me that 460,958 students received more than $144,279,786 in benefits for the 2019-20 school year. For the next school year, 2020-2021, he said 477,172 students received $326,682,316 in benefits, and when the summer months were added, the total for the year rose to 503,040 students. and $507,913,066 in funds.
That’s just over $652 million in benefits spread over 19 months.
So how did $750 end up in my mailbox?
Records provided by the Department of Human Resources show that Conduct of State and Local Services of Washington, DC, has secured a contract to handle the distribution of the cards. While records show various costs for the contract, past and potential, the department’s spokesperson told me it cost about $11 million to distribute the cards.
But the data — the actual names of those who are eligible and the amount of financial benefit they should receive — comes from the Alabama Department of Education.
Now remember spring and summer 2020. We had no idea how bad the pandemic was, how long it would last, and what we had to prepare for.
People were hoarding toilet paper. It was crazy there.
And in this context, school officials were trying not only to provide meals to those who had already signed up for the free and reduced lunch program, but also to the thousands more who had signed up since the start of the pandemic.
I spoke with the director of the Alabama Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Program and the spokesperson for the department. They both described a chaotic and confusing process of collecting and sorting through these existing and incoming accounts while navigating the process of moving to a new student data management system.
Records show that during the 2020-2021 school year, 347,663 Alabama public school students were enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. But as the Department of Human Resources spokesperson said, 477,172 students received P-EBT benefits for that year, and a total of 503,040 if summer is included.
That’s quite a big difference, somewhere between 129,509 and 155,337 students.
And if each of them received the $375 that my children received (which depends on how long each student’s school is closed), that would be between $48 million and $58 million.
Officials said part of the difference can be explained by counting private schools that are on the free and reduced-price meal program, residential child care facilities and those that were added to the program during the effort to provide meals to families during the pandemic. , although all still had to meet the eligibility criteria. It’s just not clear what those numbers are, precisely.
It was a “pretty messy situation,” the Alabama Department of Education spokesman said, while the department’s child nutrition program director said some of the numbers needed “finagling.”
Being charitable was a sign of the times in 2020. People did the best they could with the challenges they faced and the resources and information they had.
Elaine Waxmanprincipal researcher at the Urban Institute, studied the national program and explained in a Washington Post story states faced a huge knowledge management problem.
“Centralized databases for this type of information were very rare, and education departments were not set up to collect and monitor these types of data,” Waxman said.
I cut up my P-EBT cards with a pair of scissors and returned them to the distributor with a note explaining that my children were not eligible. The Alabama Department of Education spokesperson said he hoped others in my place would do the same. While I share his hope, I’m not very confident about it, especially since the total at the grocery checkout has increased by 7.5% due to inflation over the past year. only.
One of the arguments Conservatives make against large government programs is that they are simply too big for anyone to manage properly, regardless of experience, resources or intent. You can add the P-EBT program to the long series of proofs for this argument.
Still, the federal government has extended the program, and state officials told me they are currently exploring the option, though no decision has been made.
First, the program must be paused, or even stopped completely. The list of eligible students of 2020-2021 cannot be considered the basis for distributing so much money.
Second, the solution to feeding students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program is to KEEP SCHOOLS OPEN.
We can forgive the mistakes of the past, especially since it was a crisis. But education is supposed to be about learning.
And we can start by learning from our mistakes.
J. Pepper Bryans is a conservative opinion writer from Mobile who lives in Huntsville. Readers can find it at https://jpepper.substack.com.