Data’s Double-Edged Sword
Missouri’s outdated information technology (IT) systems appear to be in the center of another controversy. Typically, Missouri’s antiquated IT systems unnecessarily inflate government costs and reduce efficiency. But now, Missouri’s IT systems are so poor that the state can’t participate in the federal government’s summer food stamps program. Without diving into the merits of whether Missouri should be opting into this program in the first place, the state’s excuse serves as a reminder of how outdated technology and poor data quality can cut both ways.
For years, I’ve been complaining about Missouri’s IT systems and have been begging for improved data quality. Back in 2020, due to insufficient computer systems, pandemic unemployment benefits couldn’t be tied to recipient incomes, which led to the federal government paying many individuals more to stay home than to go back to work.
More recently, I’ve written about Missouri’s sluggish start to the post-pandemic Medicaid eligibility redetermination process. States often struggle to keep up-to-date income or address information on Medicaid and other welfare program recipients, which is why there are frequent checks to see whether those enrolled in these costly programs are still eligible to receive services. But for the last three years, many recipients maintained coverage because the state didn’t know that they no longer qualified, or weren’t allowed to remove them even if they did. It’s easy to see how poor data in such cases can quickly result in serious government waste.
These data limitations are a big reason why I wrote that the recently signed “benefit cliff” legislation is a bad idea. While it may sound good to slowly reduce welfare benefits as recipient incomes increase to avoid an abrupt loss of services, the government implementing something like that requires far better data than what is available. Missouri doesn’t keep real-time income data on program recipients, and often only checks earnings once per year. Even if a program tries to offer a welfare off-ramp, if eligibility is only checked once per year, all you have is another cliff.
All this to say, accountability in government spending is incredibly important, and it’s unfortunate that Missouri has fallen so far behind. But it’s also a good thing that the federal government wants to know that the summer food stamp benefits are actually making it to kids who need them—regardless of whether Missouri could get its act together to comply with the program’s requirements.
For a while now, the costs for Missouri’s insufficient computer systems were primarily borne by state taxpayers via bloated programs. But now that our state is missing out on millions of available federal funds aimed at benefiting children, it is my hope the issue of improving IT is something everyone can agree on. Let’s hope Missouri’s legislature listens and takes action next year.