ICYMI: The Atlantic highlights bureaucratic hurdles preventing Americans from accessing safety net programs

“The Time Tax.” That’s what Annie Lowery called the burdens that safety net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits place on the most vulnerable Americans in her recent piece in The Atlantic.

CAMI has frequently called out the inefficiencies of these benefit systems. The most vulnerable Americans, in the most need, are forced to prove their need over and over, following a different form, set of rules, and interacting with a different state or federal agency for nearly every program. Ultimately, this creates waste and delays needed resources to the most in need.

Lowery highlights the systemic issues in the programs meant to help Americans when they are at their lowest. In her piece, it’s clear this is not a pandemic problem, and it’s not the exception – it’s a feature of our existing safety net programs.

“The United States government—whether controlled by Democrats, with their love of too-complicated-by-half, means-tested policy solutions; or Republicans, with their love of paperwork-as-punishment; or both, with their collective neglect of the implementation and maintenance of government programs—has not just given up on making benefits easy to understand and easy to receive. It has in many cases purposefully made the system difficult, shifting the burden of public administration onto individuals and discouraging millions of Americans from seeking aid.”

On how the existing system exacerbates inequities within the United States, both socioeconomic and racial:

“The time tax is worse for individuals who are struggling than for the rich; larger for Black families than for white families; harder on the sick than on the healthy. It is a regressive filter undercutting every progressive policy we have. In America, losing a job means making a hundred phone calls to a state unemployment-insurance system…

“…Many programs meant to aid the poorest of the poor have demeaning, invasive, and time-consuming screening requirements. More than a dozen states require welfare applicants to submit to a drug test. State Women, Infants, and Children programs generally require in-person interviews and numerous in-clinic appointments, meaning applicants need to take time off work and find transportation to a WIC office just to get help buying formula and diapers…

“Taken as a whole, the time tax is regressive. Programs for the wealthy tend to be easy, automatic, and guaranteed. You do not need to prostrate yourself before a caseworker to get the benefits of a 529 college-savings plan. You do not need to urinate in a cup to get a tax write-off for your home, boat, or plane. You do not need to find a former partner to get a child-support determination as a prerequisite for profiting from a 401(k). The difference is so significant that, as shown by the Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, many high-income people, unlike poor folks, never even realize they are benefiting from government programs….

“How did the world’s wealthiest, most productive, and most powerful country end up with not just an ungenerous system of social policy but a convoluted, punitive, and technologically inept one? One that hurts the people it purports to help? On purpose and by design is the answer. It is one legacy of the half-millennium-old custom of separating the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. It comes from our racist impulse to shunt benefits to white families and away from Black families; our political skepticism of big bureaucracies, informed by the nightmares of Nazism and communism, as well as our faith in neoliberalism; and our insistence on the superiority of state and local control, itself an ideology with racist roots.”

On how a siloed approach to benefit programs hurts the people they are meant to serve:

“The United States has no unified social security agency. Instead, federal, state, and local offices administer dozens of different programs with different rules and application processes. Some are direct-benefit programs; others are complicated tax expenditures. Some are entitlements, where everyone gets the benefit if they qualify; others are rationed benefits, where submitting an application means spinning a wheel and hoping for the best. Some benefits have easy online applications; others are old-fashioned paper nightmares. (And many digital systems are just as bad as the analog ones.)”

We echo Lowery’s call for the government to move towards a more “user-friendly, citizen-centered programmatic design” for these programs. We cannot continue to let administrative burdens and arcane government rules and systems keep the most vulnerable populations from receiving the benefits they need to survive. As we have continued to say, the pandemic highlighted long-lasting issues with these programs, and presents a rare moment for meaningful reform and a push toward horizontal policy-making that focuses on collaboration and cooperation to make the best possible decisions and far better outcomes.

Read the full article in The Atlantic.