The failure of complex systems – in nature, society, or government – can easily cascade into life-threatening events. As our society has become overly dependent on both technology and government, we’ve unwittingly moved closer to a catastrophic collapse. Over-dependence on complex systems is foolish, and we’ve even put our ability to feed and protect our families at grave risk. This weekend’s EBT card failure is just the latest example.
Now, if you’re my age, you’ll remember that some customers once settled their grocery bill with a stack of strange, multi-colored bills from the Department of Agriculture. In those days, food stamps were considered embarrassing; and when someone used them, everyone in the community knew. But today, welfare is discreet. Just slide your EBT card to pay for food, and then use your debit or credit card for the beer, wine, or vodka that doesn’t qualify for government subsidies. Nobody but the grocery store computer system knows that your food was paid for by Obama.
The convenience of this system, coupled with a terrible Obama economy, has caused food stamp usage to explode. But a system that depends on technology is vulnerable to cascading errors. I wrote about my own family’s experience this summer with a hospital power outage.
On Saturday, a single Xerox (XRX) computer facility upgrade caused widespread EBT card outages. As a result, many mothers couldn’t feed their babies this weekend.
CBS news caught up with a Xerox spokeswoman named Jennifer Wasmer. She released details in an emailed statement: “While the Electronic Benefits System is now up and running, beneficiaries in the 17 affected states continue to experience connectivity issues to access their benefits. Technical staff is addressing the issue and expects the system to be restored soon.”
Wasmer’s email continued: “Beneficiaries requiring access to their benefits can work with their local retailers who can activate an emergency voucher system where available. We appreciate our clients’ patience while we work through this outage as quickly as possible.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, right?
But reports on the ground were much different. Carts loaded with groceries were left at the front of stores. Meat, frozen items, and perishables were left to thaw and rot. In several communities where food stamp usage is high, mini riots broke out. The police were called to multiple stores.
Two Wal-Mart (WMT) stores in Louisiana had an even bigger problem. They processed EBT payments, but the cards showed no reduction in balance. This led a shopping frenzy. The shelves of the two Wal-Marts were stripped clean. Local TV station KSLA captured the shocking pictures on TV. Hundreds of EBT shoppers knew they were stealing food, but took as much as they could fit in their cars anyway. One patron described the scene in the store as a tornado hitting a Wal-Mart.
This morning, EBT cards are working without a hitch. I visited the grocery store myself and watched the lady in front of me in line swipe her card without a hitch. But the question remains: What if the system wasn’t easily fixed? With millions of citizens dependent on the EBT program, would the National Guard be able to distribute adequate food to hungry families?
Studies have shown that the average American family has food for only two days in their kitchen. A prolonged outage, then, could quickly lead to food riots. Even if you don’t rely on EBT, you don’t want to be near a grocery store when a prolonged outage occurs. Hungry people are desperate people.
Hackers, terrorists, or even a government default could cause a prolonged outage. So I implore you: Have at least a month of food stored for you and your family at home. If you can afford it, I recommend at least a three months’ supply of non-perishable items. When real problems show up, you’ll want to be prepared.
This commentary originally appeared at CapitolHillDaily.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo credit: dermodymn (Creative Commons)