OPINION: Missouri turns its back on federal aid for children

Only one of seven states refusing funds citing computer inabilities; rejected Fed’s $180 million to upgrade them

Missouri State Rep. (D)

Missouri has decided not to participate in this summer’s Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, turning down $42 million dollars in federal aid, after struggling for nearly a year to get the federal food assistance we received last summer to qualified low-income families.

A spokesperson for Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) stated that because of the federal requirements Missouri was not able to collect state and local data to determine who was qualified for the program. They were also not confident new money could be dispersed by a Sept. 30 deadline. Missouri is one of seven states not accepting these federal funds.

Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) is a federal COVID relief program administered by states that has operated in various forms since 2020 to provide extra food benefits to kids.  The benefits are loaded onto cards and used like the food stamp program.

This summer’s program would have provided $120 for food to any child who was eligible for free or reduced lunch during the last school year. During the 2021-2022 school year roughly 356,000 students qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Challenges collecting and sharing data between agencies caused major delays in getting last year’s money to eligible children. Missouri’s Education Department has largely cited administrative hurdles to dispersing the benefits, which requires coordination between schools, the education department and social services department. The state needed to gather eligibility information about students in a manner it has not collected before, and share data across platforms that do not have the same format for the data collected.

The state needed to create a data portal from scratch to collect student eligibility information from schools to share with the Education Department and then the Social Services Department and federal government. That contract was not signed with the vendor until last August, putting Missouri months behind getting last year’s money to appropriate families.

Last summer’s benefits finally started to be dispersed in June of this year.

Beginning next summer, the program will be made permanent federally, with $40 in benefits per month of summer vacation. States can choose whether or not to opt in.

Over the years I have mentioned how antiquated Missouri’s computer systems are. There is no surprise we are now hamstrung by the inability of our departments to talk to each other to share data to better provide for the citizens of our state. This crisis demonstrates how important it is for DESE to “talk” to social services, to be able to “talk” to the division of mental health through computer connections.

After the Affordable Care Act passed in Congress in 2010, Missouri was offered $180 million to upgrade our computers as a part of the new health care program and we turned down this money.

Missouri has a long history of not attending to our infrastructure that includes roads, broadband and computers, which leaves us in the hole in which we now find ourselves, unable to distribute $42 million to families so they can have an extra $120 for over the summer to buy food for their children.

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