Since 2010, it has been the law of the land: Every state has to bring WIC, the federally funded nutrition program for women and young children, into the modern age by October 2020. By that date, every WIC program will have to abandon its paper vouchers in favor of swipe cards that make it easier for participants to redeem benefits at the grocery store.
WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, serves 20,000 low-income women, infants and young children in Maine, and the program has proven benefits. Research has shown that participating mothers are more likely to have healthy deliveries, which cost the health care system less than births with complications. Participating infants are less likely to spend time in the hospital and that prenatal WIC participation lowers the risk of infant mortality.
WIC recipients are required to participate in nutrition education, and they’re issued about $40 per person each month through paper vouchers they can redeem for a specific list of nutritious foods, such as milk, whole-wheat bread and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is stalling the legally required improvement that’s aimed at making what can be a complicated program easier to use and less stigmatizing for its participants. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew wants the electronic WIC benefit cards that program participants will one day receive to carry participant photo IDs. Since the federal government has told Mayhew it’s not willing to pay to include those photo IDs as part of an upgrade it’s fully funding, Maine DHHS has decided against moving ahead with electronic cards.
Rather than make a federally required change that could make public assistance accessible to more people, the LePage administration has dug in its heels. It has decided it’s not making the change unless it can erect one more barrier to access for a low-income mother seeking to do right by her children and offer them a healthy, nutritious start in life. In the process, it has had to forfeit $1.4 million from a federal grant it received specifically to pay for the technological upgrade.
The photo ID requirement defies logic.
It’s not only because states that have deployed photo IDs on food stamp benefit cards have found they aren’t effective at deterring what works out to be a minimal amount of fraud. And it’s not just because those states have also found that including photo IDs costs more than it saves. It’s also not just because photo IDs would be rendered meaningless when included on a card used by multiple family members.
It’s that there’s little documented fraud in WIC to begin with — the small amount of benefits cover a narrow range of foods. And photos would actually do nothing to address the misuse of benefits and program errors that are known to exist. In fact, Maine’s choice to stall a sorely needed technological update to WIC contributes more to program errors than the state’s inability to include photos on benefit cards.
There are two primary concerns about program integrity in WIC that have driven some concern among lawmakers on Capitol Hill — sales of infant formula by WIC participants, which is illegal, and improper program payments.
In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office surveyed a dozen states to determine how frequently WIC participants bought infant formula using benefits, then resold it. In the three states they surveyed that had monitored this practice closely, officials said they found less than 0.5 percent of WIC participants attempting to sell formula online. In Maine, that would work out to 22 or 23 participating women.
Since these infant formula sales involve formula that WIC participants have legally purchased, including photos on their benefit cards would do nothing to stop this practice. The photos also wouldn’t do anything to prevent common program errors, such as participants redeeming their benefits for the wrong foods.
In 2013, researchers working for a USDA contractor used undercover shoppers to test how well more than 1,900 retailers adhered to WIC rules. They found that the use of EBT cards — without photos — instead of paper vouchers substantially reduced the likelihood of a retailer allowing a WIC participant to purchase an unauthorized item.
While Mayhew professes her commitment to preventing fraud and misuse of government benefits, she’s actually been standing in the way of greater program integrity by stalling a technological upgrade to WIC that will also have the effect of making a form of public assistance easier to use.