The EBT card outage experienced on Saturday, Oct. 12 sent a shock wave across the United States. Many citizens believed the system crash was related to the government shutdown, only to learn that Xerox, the company which administers the network for the federal government, experienced what it called a “glitch,” which rippled across the national system. A crippled federal network forced over 46 million Americans who rely on the cards to revert to a cumbersome, rudimentary backup system in many states. In many others, benefit recipients had no choice but to put their groceries back on the shelf altogether.
Reaction to the outage was mixed, with some Americans posting comments onto news sites ranging from insensitive to outright racist. One of the most blatant examples of this attitude was a comment posted by "CinfulCinnamon" on Alabama news site AL.com:
"Darn..... I get the EBT folks will have to use their new hair and nail money to feed their welfare babies ! What a shame....NOT"
Fortunately, there has been a backlash against such comments, such as this comment from reader Jessica Lynn on the website of KABC-TV in Los Angeles:
Others excoriated the federal government for allowing a private contractor to botch such a critical relief system, such as this comment posted by reader Kimberly Leffelman on Oklahoma City's KFOR-TV:
"With so many that depend on the snap benefits, that is a critical program that should be highly protected from outages and if there is a change that needs to be made schedule it on non-peak times. I work and I get Link benefits with two kids that depend on me to bring home a meal. How would they like not getting a payckeck to put that lobster on the table and line it with their favorite champaign, I am very confident they would be making sure that did not happen."
Many benefit recipients were outraged, blaming everyone from elected officials to the Tea Party to conservative pundits. Regardless of what side of the ideological aisle was speaking, the general consensus was that the overall confusion was no surprise, considering the current chaotic state of the federal government itself.
Yet this issue exposes a critical vulnerability in the government entitlement system, and it’s not even one involving the current government budget impasse - the fact that no uniform backup plan exists in the event the system is compromised in the future. Should a hacker somehow penetrate the various layers of security and crash the network, recipients would be beholden to a complex, arcane system of rules in some states and, in others, would have no protection. For parents who rely on these benefits to feed their children, or seniors surviving almost exclusively on such plans, this is a very real danger.
Solutions to such failures are complex, though there are models to follow to create a temporary bridge. In some states, voucher numbers can be entered to allow up to $50 in groceries to be purchased in the event of a system outage. Other states have backup systems requiring a call center be contacted to obtain and authorization code which is then used similar to a manual credit card entry. While both systems, and others like it, offer emergency payment options in the event of a system outage, other states have either failed to adopt such systems, or have not mandated that companies contracted to administer their plans maintain such a backup. Hence, those states without a failsafe must say to their recipients “tough luck,” while their most vulnerable citizens are allowed to go hungry.
In light of this controversy, it would behoove Congress to conduct hearings to expose the exact chain of events at Xerox leading to this failure, as well as mandating the states to implement some form of backup system as a condition of continued federal funding of the state level programs. For years, state governments railed against federal meddling in the system, saying they can run it better even if the systems are different.
This weekend’s failure has proven that, despite their best intentions, state politicians don’t always get it right. When this happens, it falls upon the federal government to step in and get it right. In a matter involving a program as vital as the Supplemental Nutrition system, human error must be eliminated, and functionality must be 100 percent instead of 99.
Rather than racist and condescending attitudes, our citizens deserve compassion and help in their hour of greatest need, and when the state government can’t deliver, the federal government must. It’s just that simple.