Missouri’s participation in the WIC public assistance program fell sharply during the pandemic

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated economic hardship and unemployment, according to a report published last week.

The steep decline, the report said, was related to Missouri’s cumbersome system of benefit distribution. Missouri began transitioning to a less onerous system last year, the state Department of Health and Senior Services confirmed Friday, but it’s estimated it will take another four years to complete.

WIC attendance in Missouri fell by nearly a fifth from February 2020 to February 2022, according to a report by the nonprofit advocacy group Food Research & Action Center.

The only state with a larger drop in participation was New Mexico.

About 80,000 low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children under the age of 5 were enrolled in Missouri’s WIC program earlier this year. down by 20,000 Participants since early 2020.

The pandemic “increased unemployment and economic hardship, making many families newly eligible for WIC,” the report noted, suggesting that falling participation was not due to falling needs for public support.

The federal government has not released updated state-by-state data on coverage or claim ratios during the pandemic.

States’ participation rates during the pandemic have varied widely. There has been a slight increase in WIC attendance nationally, with some states such as North Carolina seeing double-digit increases.

One reason some states, like Missouri, have seen double-digit declines in WIC attendance rates may be related to administrative roadblocks, particularly the arduous way some states are recharging attendee achievements, according to the report.

Other states had systems that allowed them to move away from face-to-face contact, but not Missouri.

Missouri is one of only nine states to use a WIC system that requires participants’ perk cards to be physically swiped when perks are loaded. Missouri operates an “offline” system for reloading benefits onto participants’ debit cards for Electronic Transfer of Benefits (EBT). All other states operate “online” systems that can recharge services remotely and automatically.

The majority of states have accepted federal government flexibilities during the pandemic to waive requirements for granting personal benefits. Because Missouri did not have the technological capacity to grant benefits remotely, the state had to continue to require in-person issuance.

The states with the largest overall decreases in WIC participation all had offline systems, meaning they could not award benefits remotely. These were: New Mexico (-19.7%), Missouri (-18.9%), Pennsylvania (-17.7%), Ohio (-14.5%) and Arkansas (-14%).

With federal flexibilities still in place, participants in most states do not need to travel to WIC offices to top up their benefits. The report advocates extending these flexibilities beyond the public health emergency, arguing that the changes have helped fuel the modest surge in WIC participation nationally during COVID.

Participants in offline systems may have had health concerns when going to the office during the pandemic, or there could be an overall cost of time and resources going to a WIC clinic to top up benefits, the report said.

“I have to request leave just to top up the card”

A Missouri resident, Bethany Hanna, sometimes has to miss work to have her benefits personally loaded onto her EBT card.

Hanna, who lives in Joplin and is a mother of a three-year-old and an eight-month-old, attends WIC.

“I have to apply for leave just to top up the card,” she said in an interview. Nevertheless, she considers her situation to be fortunate: “Many people have no way of getting there, or they have to work and cannot take off.”

Even when certain WIC services were rendered virtually in Missouri, there were no benefits. A WIC office in Joplin reminded attendees on Facebook post in October 2020, amid rising COVID infection numbers, that although they could get some services over the phone, they “need to bring a card, a PIN after your call [number]and mask yourself in the office to add perks as they are not automatically added.

The report states: “It is imperative that government agencies with offline EBT systems begin the process of moving to online EBT to ensure remote access to services as needed in the future.”

Other factors that the report cites as possible impacts on participation rates are “different levels of WIC outreach, sponsorship and coordination with other sectors” and limited staffing capacities at some government agencies.

States with offline systems, a public health law network output short Summarizing May, often argue that the benefits of in-person reloading include accompanying nutritional education and health checks, and also cite the costs of switching to an online system.

But “these benefits are largely outweighed by the burdens associated with offline systems,” the letter states arguedciting participants’ socioeconomic and transportation barriers to accessing in-person WIC benefits.

The Public Health Law Network concluded that the pandemic “has made it clear that an online program better serves WIC beneficiaries” and proved that “even minor barriers to accessing public programs can significantly reduce participation”.

A year-long transition

WIC is administered by the US Department of Agriculture and operated by government agencies. In Missouri, the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) oversees the program.

A spokeswoman for DHSS, Lisa Cox, said “it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for the decline in Missouri’s WIC attendance,” but added that “being an offline state makes it harder to WIC.” – to conduct business”.

Other factors that Cox said may have influenced the declining participation could include the state’s difficulties in implementing the EBT system for the first time in 2020, “a challenge in itself without adding the complications caused by COVID,” and increased benefits for other programs such as unemployment and SNAP.

The reason Missouri chose to operate an offline system was based on an analysis done about a decade ago, Cox said.

In 2020, “it became apparent that an online system would be more user-friendly,” Cox said, but “Missouri WIC was unable to change that decision midway through implementation.”

The state “started the steps” to transition to an online system last year, but the transition is expected to take about four more years, Cox said.

Cox added that the state has ramped up WIC awareness efforts, seeing a surge of 3,000 participants in the past two months, bringing the most recent average to around 87,000 participants — up from earlier this year, albeit still well below pre-pandemic levels.

Missouri independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock with any questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

https://fox2now.com/news/missouri-participation-in-public-benefits-program-wic-fell-sharply-during-pandemic/ Missouri’s participation in the WIC public assistance program fell sharply during the pandemic

Sarah Y. Kim

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