Over the weekend, some shoppers in 17 states were treated to a free buying binge at places like Walmart after a data center glitch at Xerox removed spending limits on their electronic benefits cards, Businessweek reported.
Xerox operates payment systems for food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The EBT cards are coded with monthly spending limits.
Nearly 48 million Americans now receive food stamps, an $80 billion-a-year program. These have long been a cornerstone of the federal safety net, though recipients say the money typically lasts a little more than two weeks.
Last month, House Republicans pushed through a bill that would slash $40 billion over the next 10 years, while imposing additional limits and requirements – removing nearly four million people. The measure has little chance of advancing in the Senate, New York Times reported, and has been called “a monumental waste of time.”
But no matter what Congress decides, benefits will be reduced in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires. A family receiving about $350 a month, for example, can expect $29 less.
A 2012 survey showed that nearly 49 million Americans were living in “food insecure” households, with family members lacking “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food.” While higher than the previous decade, these figures have been the same since the economic downturn began in 2008.
And climbing the income ladder depends a lot on where you grow up. Kids whose parents have low incomes are very likely to themselves grow up to have low incomes, according to a study released this summer on income mobility in the U.S. New York Times explained:
Among adults who grew up in the bottom half of the income distribution, only one out of 25 had family income of at least $100,000 by age 30.
Mathematicians have examined these issues as a food-value problem decades ago and came up with a (rather unappetizing) solution. Linear programming, a tool for maximizing utility within multiple constraints, is actually just a fancy way of saying: Getting the most out of what you've got. Here’s an example from my brother’s old junior high algebra textbook (1976, Laidlaw Brothers Publishers):
In 1945, American mathematician George Stigler looked for the cheapest diet that would provide a person’s daily needs of calories, proteins, calcium, iron, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid.
He considered 70 possible foods and found that the lowest-cost diet was a combination of wheat flour, cabbage, and hog liver. By mixing amounts of these, a person could live in good health for $59.88 a year (then). Costs today are higher...
Just some food for thought.
The 11-hour disruption on Saturday was caused by a data center power outage, and SNAP will reimburse the vendors. Walmart stores continued accepting EBT cards throughout the day while other local stores temporarily stopped. By the time the spending limit problem was fixed around 9 p.m., Reuters reported, shoppers pushing up to 10 carts left behind a “decimated grocery section of Walmart” in at least two Louisiana towns.
Images: National Archives and Records Administration (top) / National Museum of American History (thumbnail) via U.S. Department of Agriculture Flickr