A lack of direction and funding from the federal government has hindered a nationwide transition to payment cards for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.
The New York company said payment cards offer several advantages for government benefit programs, but the government must make a financial commitment to support a transition from paper vouchers.
Electronic transfers are "the best possible way to distribute those benefits," Brian Kibble-Smith, the executive director of public affairs for JPMorgan Chase's treasury services unit, said in an interview this month. Some states that have tested payment cards have reverted to vouchers, he said, because government grants did not cover the full cost of conversion.
In a report issued last month, Kibble-Smith wrote that magnetic-stripe cards are the most cost-efficient method to deliver WIC benefits. Three states currently use such cards.
Smart cards also are starting to catch on. Wyoming and New Mexico use them now, and Texas and Nevada are planning to introduce them this year. Smart cards for WIC programs cost about $3 each to manufacture, compared with about 30 cents for a magnetic-stripe card, the report said.
JPMorgan Chase provides WIC electronic benefits transfer processing for the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma.
The federal WIC program provide health care and nutrition benefits for low-income pregnant women and children under five.
In 2005, Ohio reverted to vouchers because "they did not believe they could afford EBT within their nutrition services and administration grant," according to an e-mail from a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the WIC program.
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont also tested cards, but they shifted back to vouchers in 2006.
The JPMorgan Chase report said that magnetic-stripe cards are a better fit than smart cards, largely because WIC users are familiar with the cards, and other programs, such as food stamps and unemployment benefits, are already using them.
The Food and Nutrition Service spokeswoman said it is neutral regarding whether state agencies use magnetic-stripe or smart cards for WIC initiatives. "Both online and offline technology have been used by state agencies, and both have proven to be feasible."
In 2002, Wyoming became the first state to deliver WIC benefits on a card. The smart cards were issued under a contract with Stored Value Solutions, a Louisville unit of Ceridian Corp.
Janet Moran, Wyoming's WIC program section chief, said smart cards offer advantages over magnetic-stripe ones. "Sometimes an online system can be down, and people don't have access to benefits," but with a chip card, the benefits are loaded directly on to the card.
Magnetic-stripe cards make sense for unemployment benefits, because "it's like cash," Moran said, but she plans to continue using smart cards for WIC "for the foreseeable future."
Kibble-Smith said WIC benefits, which can be used to purchase only certain items, are harder than those from other programs for merchants to accept. "A WIC transaction can be the most time-consuming transaction that a retailer can perform."
Moran said payment cards can eliminate misunderstandings between the cashier and the recipient. "Everything is controlled by the UPC" code scanned at checkout, "so you know they are purchasing the right products."
The Food and Nutrition Service spokeswoman said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law last month will provide $500 million for WIC benefits. "The law also provides $100 million to establish, improve or administer a management-information system for WIC, including the advancement of EBT in the WIC program."