Apps for SNAP with Both Green and Yellow Lights Flashing

New Orleans   An internet application that would allow food stamp recipients participating in SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program as the government calls it now, seems like a great idea.  A Brooklyn-based startup called Propel created an app that allows recipients to check on their smartphones and see how much of their benefits they have spent and how much they have left.  The app also has coupons for food stores, supposedly offering more nutritional products, and in some states has job postings.   Sounds like a winner for lower income families at first blush, so green light and go for it.

There’s no question we need the techies to start thinking of the best ways to provide better access and information to people receiving services, especially low-and-moderate income families.  The food stamp program is a great place to start. Over forty-four million people participate in the program now so this is a big-time operation.  Of those recipients about 44% or twenty million are children so the potential pool for smartphones giving access to such information is about twenty-four million.  Maybe half that number actually have smartphones, although that may be a kind estimate given the persistence of the digital divide, but being liberal that would mean perhaps twelve million have smartphones now.

Propel claims it has one-million users.  In a study with Duke University, Propel found that on average SNAP recipients spent more than 80 percent of their SNAP benefits within the first nine days, completely exhausting the sum by day 21. But when given an in-app tool that showed them a weekly budget instead of the entire balance, users stretched their monthly balance by two days—about six meals a month.

An article in The New York Times paints them as the good guys and a Xerox $6 billion spinoff named Conduent as the bad guy bullies.  The Propel app is a “skin” that is built on top of platforms provided by Conduent and other governmental subcontractors of state governments that provide Electronic Benefit Transfers to benefit recipients.   Most of the food stamp delivery systems are provided by two companies, Conduent and Fidelity National Information Systems known as FIS, a $9 billion company.  Conduent has contracts with twenty-two states that I could identify from governmental information.  FIS has most of the rest of them.  Propel tells the Times that FIS is no problem, but Conduent is.  Additionally, Conduent has rolled out a competing app that gives basic information in South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah with more information coming.

Looking at the state contract specifics for Conduent, I found that in several states their web design allowed access to a wide range of benefits from TANF to energy assistance and more, which many of us for years have felt is the Holy Grail necessary to get increased maximum feasible participation in benefit access.   Because Conduent has state contracts it is also regulated, which Propel and its competitors are not.  As much as my kneejerk response was to root for the little guy versus the big boys, a yellow light is slowing me down even as I was flooring the car on green.

Partially, it’s the business model.  Propel can’t sell data obviously since food stamp recipients are protected by an array of confidentiality laws at the federal level, so they deserve no special applause that is inferred in the Times’ piece, since none of these primary contractors can either.  The Propel business model is advertising, coupons from the food stores, and job postings.  I find none of that reassuring. Frankly, the income sources for the company need to be regulated as well when the potential to exploit these vulnerable populations lies behind every one of these sources.  Equally obvious is that state governments should be insisting that its contractors like Conduent and FIS should be providing the kinds of features that Propel is promoting to recipients free and clear now that Propel has shown their value.  Propel may not like other businesses playing hardball, but I don’t like government not stepping up to its full responsibilities to serve their citizens, especially lower income families.


Global Handles are Proving Good Tactics, Even if not Huge Leverage

Jay Leno joins a demonstration Monday calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel over the human-rights record of the government of Brunei, which owns the hotel. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Jay Leno joins a demonstration Monday calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel over the human-rights record of the government of Brunei, which owns the hotel. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

New Orleans   Talking to Steve Early, labor journalist and activist, recently on Wade’s World about the debate over the value of global leverage in organizing drives by the UAW at Volkswagen and CWA at T-Mobile, got me looking around for other examples of organizations grabbing global handles to increase the pressure in their campaigns.  

One that is getting a surprising amount of traction from an unlikely source is SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of Abuse by Priests, which has been waging a relentless effort to hold the Catholic Church accountable for sexual abuse for decades now.  Even in the feel good embrace of the new administration of the Vatican by Pope Francis from Argentina, SNAP with the legal assistance of the New York based Center for Constitutional Rights has managed to give the Vatican huge headaches and public relations nightmares by appealing to the United Nations, more specifically the UN Committee on Torture.  Thus far they have already succeeded in getting this UN committee to classify sexual abuse as equivalent to some forms of torture, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and, frankly, not so far-fetched.    Moreover they seem to have scored a coup as well by recently prevailing on the UN committee to see the Vatican’s responsibility as the entire holy Catholic church worldwide, surprising the Archbishop trying to do damage control before the UN committee and narrowing the inquiry to only the couple of hundred employees and church staff. 

SNAP has clearly been the bulldog attached to the robes of the church in the United States for years and critical in winning multi-million dollar judgments for its members, but has been exasperated at the continued unwillingness of the church to accept full accountability.  For example SNAP even viewed the recent committee appointed by Pope Francis skeptically as too limited and another evasion.  Recent reports by committee members indicate that they believe they are making progress in coming up with real protocols within the church for dealing with sexual abuse, but given the long history of this campaign, SNAP is not wrong to be worried.   Their gambit with the United Nations may finally put them within reach of the top-to-bottom acceptance of responsibility and full accountability they have sought for so long.  Talk about finding friends in strange places!

In another case of a horrendous issue searching for a handle, the Gill Action Fund, an LGBT group, has triggered a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, home of the Hollywood favorite, Polo Club, because its owner, an investment vehicle of the Sultan of Brunei, is implementing more provisions of sharia law in that country including stoning for adultery and any kind of hanky-panky by same sex couples.  Big name, headliner groups run by the likes of Jay Leno and his wife, have already pulled out, and other properties owned by the Sultan in London and Paris, are increasingly persona non grata for the elite and one-percenters not wanting to look all “Donald Sterling” on this issue.  Brunei is a long, long way from Hollywood out there in the South China Sea on the tip of Borneo calling Indonesia and Malaysia its neighbors, so it’s a cinch not many A-listers had every set foot on its soil or had any plans to do so, but thanks to an evolving sophistication in global campaigning, even long distance no matter how remote cannot protect evil forever.

Smart tactics and persistent campaigns are finding pressure points, so let’s hope they can build the leverage to bring home the victories.