P-EBT Cards: Waste or Necessity?

In the spring of 2021, Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) cards were sent to 355,000 Chicago Public School students, 76% of whom were economically disadvantaged (GCFD, 2022).

During remote learning, these cards served as a replacement for the free lunches CPS students would normally receive, providing students with $6.82 per school day that could be spent at grocery stores (Issa, 2021). Although unemployment claims exploded in early 2020, the nation’s overall food insecurity rate remained constant between 2019 and 2020, which experts attribute to programs like P-EBT (Pintado, 2021). But, what do people on the ground think of this aid program? Was it a necessary step to help Chicago’s poorest communities or a waste of money?

One senior at a CPS high school describes how his P-EBT card was a necessary aid in the middle of the pandemic, saying, “my family had issues paying for groceries after my dad lost his job in the earliest days of the pandemic, and the P-EBT card was a lifesaver when our savings had run out several months into the pandemic.” A CPS parent had similar praise when asked about the program in general, stating that it helped Chicagoans who were forced to make sacrifices throughout the pandemic. Asked to think about the program he said, “personally, my family is pretty well off, and both my wife and I were able to work remotely, so we never really had any financial issues. I thought the government sending us a card too was just a waste of money – there were many other people who needed it more.” This relates to one of the most common criticisms of the program: the money was sent to every CPS student, no matter their economic situation and level of need. This was one of the fundamental debates with Covid relief measures: the trade-off between sending aid as rapidly as possible and targeting the aid to the people who most need it, which takes time (Zhou, 2021). This debate has no conclusive answer, but given that P-EBT cards reduced child food insecurity by 22% in 2021, it is clear that they had a large impact on some of Chicago’s poorest households (Bauer et al., 2021).