I’ve got a dilemma shared by thousands of poor, senior and disabled Oregonians.
Like many Oregonians with a disability, I receive SNAP benefits. You may remember them as “food stamps,” but there are no physical coupons anymore. Instead, funds are stored on a debit card. Only the state government can deposit funds into the card and there are only certain things the card can be used for. It can be used to pay for groceries, but with restrictions — no hot food, no alcohol or tobacco, no nonfood items like toilet paper or over-the-counter medicines.
And the SNAP card must be used in person. By that I mean it is a crime for anyone to use someone else’s card.
In normal times this is a very good thing. It protects against fraud. However, these are not normal times.
It’s not safe for people who are disabled to shop at grocery stores that only enforce mask policies casually or not at all. This is more true for people who are older. Some people can afford grocery delivery, but SNAP funds can only be used in person. And SNAP cannot be used for delivery.
This means to get food, people who would be most harmed by COVID will be in contact with people who refuse to wear masks.
The last place most SNAP recipients should be going in a pandemic is a supermarket full of people who can’t be bothered to use a face mask properly, and whose management is unwilling or unable to enforce the restrictions on masking and social distancing. Worse, even if it was a good idea to go, public transit is an even worse option if you want to avoid infection, because in my experience a very large portion of riders flouts the mask requirement, by either not wearing masks or wearing their masks improperly in ways that make them useless.
There is an obvious solution — make delivery and pickup as available to SNAP recipients as to everyone else. Practically, though, that’s not so easy, because unlike a debit or credit card, Oregon Trail cards cannot be used online or over the phone. You can’t go on the web, fill an online cart with the groceries you need, set a delivery window and then pay using your benefits because stores won’t take your card unless you physically use it in person at the checkout stand.
It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
Like debit cards, Oregon Trail cards are PIN protected. You enter a four-digit number of your choice into the payment device that takes people’s debit and credit cards. Right now, that only works in person, but the technology is there to adapt it to delivery or pickup orders. Credit and debit cards have a security code on the card, a CCV, that enables the people you are paying to verify that this is in fact your card and not somebody who’s stolen your number. This is good but is anything less secure than a PIN because the number is actually printed on the physical card. PIN numbers are not.
As we as a society continue to adjust to life in relative isolation, our increasingly online world is leaving our most vulnerable people behind. In a case like this, where everyone needs to eat, it places an unnecessary burden on the most vulnerable.
Supermarket chains can fix this easily and still get their money. So why haven’t they?