Nice Time! Computer Nerds Take On Government-Benefit 'Time Tax'
Photo: Code For America Summit, 2019. Creative Commons license 2.0

If you want a brief vision of bureaucratic hell, it's hard to top the opening paragraph of this Atlantic article by Annie Lowrey. We've actually edited it down a bit for space, even:

A mother in Louisiana is struggling to pay her bills and decides to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps. She starts to fill out the state’s 26-page, 8,350-word application. Page one instructs her to distinguish between SNAP and two other programs. [...] Page three lets her know that she needs to collect paperwork or data in up to 13 different categories—pharmacy printouts from the past three months, four pay stubs, baptismal certificates, proof of who lives in the home. [...] Page 15 asks her to detail her income from 24 different sources; page 16 asks about 14 different housing expenses; page 19 asks about 10 types of assets members of her family might own. The process is invasive, time-consuming, and confusing. She might never finish the application. If she does, she could be rejected for doing the paperwork wrong.

Here's another one, courtesy of your editrix: When her good son was a small buttercup of a baby, the state of California rejected his Medi-Cal (California Medicaid) application, similar to the above, because his birth mother hadn't signed it. His birth mother was deceased.

This is no way to provide service to people who are in need of government assistance, and in some states the paperwork hurdles seem consciously designed to prevent people from getting the help they qualify for, and as Lowrey notes, Florida's unemployment insurance program was literally built with the goal of making benefits difficult to collect, which created chaos during the pandemic.

Happily, there's a hero in this story, or rather, an entire organization of them: Code for America (CFA), a nonprofit based in San Francisco, has been working to make the process of interacting with government, including applying for benefits, easier and more accessible to people. Previous CFA initiatives have helped people clear their criminal records, created tools to apply for tax credits more easily, and referred folks to volunteer tax preparers, because you can't claim the Earned Income Tax Credit if you don't file.

And now, with $100 million in new funding, the group is embarking on a major expansion in which it plans to partner "with 15 states to reach 13 million people and unlock $30 billion in benefits in the areas of food assistance, health care, and other basic needs." It's a huge step that's going to make people's lives better, so hooray for the geeks and the people they're going to help.


Even better, Lowrey notes at The Atlantic, this is something of a trend. CFA's expansion is

just one part of a much larger effort to unwind the administrative burdens that annoy and impoverish countless families and erode trust in the country’s institutions. A number of states are redoing their benefit applications using accessible-design principles, bills to slash red tape and simplify benefits administration are pending in Congress, and President Joe Biden is using executive orders to cut down on the “time tax” the government puts on low-income families.

That "time tax" — the huge amount of time that it takes for people to navigate the process of simply proving they really do qualify for government benefits — isn't just a burden, it's one of the main reasons people don't get, or keep, assistance that could keep them out of poverty. Lowrey uses Louisiana as an example, but notes that it's completely typical:

An estimated one in four recipients of SNAP in the state “churns” off and on the program in a given year due to paperwork troubles. Families that endure the arduous application process wait, on average, 32 months to receive a housing voucher. Louisiana runs one of the smallest cash-welfare programs in the country, and closes 5 to 10 percent of cases a month for procedural errors or in order to punish a recipient for noncompliance. [...] In 2019, the state disenrolled 21,893 kids—kids!—from its public health-insurance program due to “failure to comply with procedures.”

Predictably, that results in greater levels of hunger, housing insecurity, poverty, and just all-around misery for low-income people, and for fuckssake it doesn't have to be so bad. We have programs that are supposed to help people in poverty, but as Lowrey puts it, "Even if safety-net programs are meant to help struggling people, in many cases they are not designed for struggling people to access."

Sometimes that's entirely by design, as with the work requirements that Arkansas Republicans imposed for people to stay on Medicaid. To stay eligible, Medicaid beneficiaries had to document that they were working or volunteering, or were exempt from the requirement, but the only way to do that was on a state website; no paper forms allowed. At the time (2018), Arkansas had some of the lowest internet access in the USA. Wasn't that a neat trick! Big surprise: People were confused and outright thwarted by the process and lost their healthcare. Happily, a court put the work requirements on hold in 2019, before the Biden administration killed off Medicaid work requirements altogether a year ago.

Read More:

Arkansas Fixin' To Bone Lazy Poors Who Don't Live Online Like Common Bloggers

Biden Administration Drives Stake Through Heart Of Medicaid Work Requirements

Such extra hoops aren't solely a Republican thing, either. Republicans genuinely have "wielded administrative burdens as a quiet way to throttle enrollment." But as Lowrey notes, Democrats have tended to use "means testing" as a way to make sure benefits go to low-income folks (which may also make the aid more politically palatable). The problem is that such tests overlook "the growing difficulty of understanding, applying for, and holding on to benefits."

So what will CFA be doing to ease those burdens? In Louisiana already, the group created a system that sent text messages to remind people in various safety-net programs when they have to be at an interview, a simple tool that "increased the share of applicants receiving SNAP from 67 percent to 81 percent, and bumped up the proportion of people successfully renewing their SNAP benefits."

With the new funding, the group intends to do some long-range projects to help people navigate the systems that are supposed to be helping them, starting with efforts to cut down on "churn" that results in people losing benefits because of missed deadlines and paperwork. Tracey Patterson, a CFA boffin who works on safety-net programs, told Lowrey,

“How can we make sure people aren’t getting dropped off of Medicaid or SNAP, because they didn’t realize that there was paperwork that they had to do, or it was too confusing or stressful at the time that it was received?”

But wait! Shouldn't government be solving its inefficiency problems without a nonprofit coming in and doing the government's job? Patterson explained that while civil servants do give lots of thought to these problems, her group can provide tech skills (and yes, money) that state agencies simply don't have. CFA can “act as the risk absorber,” she said, “to try something new, pilot it, test it out, and evaluate it—that’s quite difficult for governments to do in-house.”

Also too, Lowrey notes, the pandemic provided government with a kick in the pants to streamline getting cash to people:

States suspended in-person interviews for SNAP. School districts gave everyone free lunch. Congress sent no-strings-attached stimulus checks to low-income households and cash payments to parents. Medicaid programs were barred from kicking anyone off.

F'rinstance, the American Rescue Plan's expanded child tax credit went to all qualifying parents with young kids, providing a necessary cushion during the pandemic and cutting child poverty, and almost nobody had to apply for it (except for folks who didn't file taxes). It did some very real good for American kids, at least before Joe Manchin refused to continue it (he wanted the benefits means tested, which would have limited its appeal to the middle class and added more damn "time tax" for low-income folks who would benefit most).

Terri Ricks, the deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, told Lowrey that the relaxed qualifications for some benefits during the pandemic "helped us to understand that maybe some of the rules that we have in play—we really don’t need them."

Now wouldn't that be a hell of a good thing for federal and state agencies to realize! Oh, but then government might help people, and Republicans certainly won't stand for that.

[Atlantic / Code for America / Photo:Code For America. Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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