Missouri fumbles $42M, again showing it’s among the worst-run states in America

Missouri’s government is walking away from tens of millions of dollars that would have put food in low-income kids’ bellies because it is incapable of carrying out its end of a federal benefits program that at least 40 other states have managed to navigate.

Chalk it up to the same endemic failures that have driven away teachers because of Missouri’s low pay, shortchanged needed infrastructure and presided over some of the highest mortality rates in the country — all while the Legislature has busied itself with short-sighted tax cuts and gratuitous culture-war attacks on large swaths of its own citizenry.

It is the latest note in an all-too-familiar chorus of dysfunction in one of the worst-run states in America.

If there are two defining characteristics of Missouri’s Republican-run government, they are ideological extremism and governmental incompetence. The story of how the state’s needy kids were blocked from accessing some $42 million in available federal food benefits appears to check both those boxes.

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The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or P-EBT, is a relief program funded by the federal government but administered by states. It loads food benefits onto cards that kids can use for up to $120 worth of food if they are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs.

As reported by The Missouri Independent, roughly 356,000 Missouri kids qualify, putting some $42.7 million from the federal government on the table this year.

But Missouri will be leaving it there. The state is forgoing participation this year, after last year’s program here dragged into this summer due to the state’s inability to get the money where it needed to go.

No one should underestimate the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy necessary to administer a federal program — but other states managed it, most of them dispersing last year’s funds in just a few months last summer. Missouri government, however, with its outdated computer systems, needed to create a data portal from scratch to collect information on student eligibility and coordinate that data with state and federal agencies.

As a result, Missouri didn’t even get last year’s program up and running until this summer, according to documents obtained by The Missouri Independent. The decision to bow out of this year’s program, a spokesperson for Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the news site, was based on “the federal requirements associated with accessing and administering the benefits … coupled with the limitations of our current state and local data collection systems.”

Technological lapses aren’t a new story in Missouri government, and the current regime has shown little interest in addressing that problem. When the Post-Dispatch discovered in 2021 that a glitch in one of the state’s systems was publicly exposing thousands of teachers’ Social Security numbers, Gov. Mike Parson responded not with determination to finally bring his state’s technological infrastructure into the 21st century, but with a bizarre legal vendetta against the reporter who uncovered it.

Governmental foot-dragging has become typical on issues that are crucial to regular Missourians but offer no clear ideological payoff to the state’s right-wing political leaders.

It took 25 years for Missouri to finally pass a gas tax hike in 2021 for badly needed highway and bridge upgrades. When the state finally addressed its rock-bottom teachers’ salaries recently, it didn’t simply raise them, but instead offered school districts a temporary matching-grant program that many of them can’t use and which doesn’t permanently solve the problem.

After the Legislature refused for years to expand Medicaid with federal subsidies as envisioned under the Affordable Care Act — another instance of Missouri politicians leaving millions of federal dollars on the table, to the detriment of the state’s low-income residents — the state’s voters finally had to overrule them in 2021 to get it done.

And even then, legislators attempted to block the voter-approved Medicaid expansion from going into effect. At times, it seems these lawmakers can’t be moved to action unless it is to further burden already-vulnerable Missourians.

Contrast that lumbering obstruction with the state’s lightning-fast implementation last year of an abortion ban as extreme as any in the nation. Literally minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Missouri officials enacted a previously passed law that outlaws the procedure from the moment of conception, even in cases of rape of incest.

Was that kind of quick and effective marshaling of governmental power (in the name of protecting, literally, clumps of cells) really not possible for the goal of ensuring that fully formed but underprivileged Missouri school kids don’t go hungry?

Or perhaps there was an underlying factor like the one that stalled Medicaid expansion here for so long — the factor of a ruling GOP that would rather its own residents suffer than to give a Democratic presidential administration a policy win.

Perhaps that suggestion is too cynical. Maybe Missouri is shortchanging its hungry kids not out of political animus, but just plain old governmental incompetence. When voters next year consider whether to keep these leaders in charge, they should think long and hard about whether that distinction really matters.

Originally Appeared Here

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