Issuing and redeeming food benefits on a magnetic stripe card, called EBT, has a successful history in the SNAP program. With SNAP, cardholders swipe their card to redeem foods for cash, just like a debit card. The card lets users shop for foods with privacy and discretion, not needing to publicly disclose their usage of government assistance.
In WIC, EBT takes on a more complicated form. In WIC, benefits are issued in an array of food categories with a specific balance amount for each category. The card no longer stores a single entry, but accommodates a two dimensional matrix of available items. This has complicated how mothers track their remaining benefits.
When WIC used paper vouchers, mothers had a list in-hand of what could be purchased. On the EBT card, that list has disappeared.
Judy Hause, the WIC director of Massachusetts, told us:
“The physical check was so key to participants understanding their balances. Real-time balance information [is] something we’ve found to be absolutely necessary since converting to our electronic benefit system.”
Judy’s comments follow a trend we’ve been seeing, which is that WIC mothers report difficulties tracking their EBT balance. The consequence is that unused benefits often expire.
From interviewing WIC mothers, we’ve found that EBT cards fail to present a complete user experience. The gap occurs when the user wants to know their benefit balance. The plastic cards don’t show the balance; additional effort is required, by either making a purchase or seeking out a WIC kiosk. Mothers are encouraged to manually track their balance via old shopping receipts, but we worry this manual effort reduces confidence in the checkout counter.
For a task as complicated as WIC shopping, EBT requires a front-end interface that keeps the mothers in the know. EBT serves the retailers and WIC agencies, but this only the back-end half of the transaction. EBT is, today, only half a horse.
At QuickWIC, serving the program’s mothers is our mission. We want to complement the EBT experience with real-time benefits. Real-time benefits will improve WIC shopping satisfaction and decrease confusion at the checkout counter.
The timing of this issue could not be more important. For the millennial generation of mothers, the front-end experience is how they relate to services. Complicated balance look up will not be tolerated; card services will be ignored.
We hope that WIC agencies will support families in the supermarket by equipping the with real-time balance look up.