Opinion | Why Do We Make the Poor Run an Obstacle Course to Get Help?


By Bryce Covert

Ms. Covert is a journalist who focuses on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families.

Last summer the vast majority of American families with children saw money appear in their bank accounts without doing anything at all. Thanks to legislation passed by Democrats earlier in the year, an expanded Child Tax Credit automatically sent out $300 each month through the rest of the year for every child under 6 and $250 for older ones to people who regularly file taxes. It showcased what government can do when it works at its most efficient: seamlessly deliver meaningful benefits without requiring people to take much, or really any, action.

But for the roughly 2.3 million children whose families hadn’t recently filed income taxes, the Child Tax Credit showcased all the worst instincts of governmental bureaucracy. The I.R.S. needed to know how many children they had, how much they earned and where they lived in order to send these families their money. Other government agencies probably had at least some of that data. But at first the I.R.S. wanted to make this group of people file tax returns instead of hunting down the information itself. It was eventually swayed to track it down, and yet when it launched a portal for anyone it didn’t find, the form didn’t work on a cellphone, was only available in English, required an email address and came with densely written instructions.

The expanded Child Tax Credit payments substantially reduced hardship, lowering the monthly child poverty rate by 30 percent, which meant 3.7 million fewer children lived in poverty in December — one of the most significant reductions in child poverty in generations — after which the payments stopped, thanks to congressional inaction. But it had been projected to cut child poverty in half. To achieve that goal, it would have had to successfully reach all the parents who were owed a payment.

The excitement around policymaking is almost always in the moments after ink dries on a bill creating something new. But if a benefit fails to reach the people it’s designed for, it may as well not exist at all. Making government benefits more accessible and efficient doesn’t usually get the spotlight. But it’s often the difference between a family getting what it needs to survive and falling into hardship and destitution. It’s the glue of our democracy.

President Biden appears to have taken note of this. Late last year, he issued an executive order meant to improve the “customer experience and service delivery” of the entire federal government. He put forward some ideas, including moving Social Security benefit claims and passport renewals online, reducing paperwork for student loan forgiveness and certifying low-income people for all the assistance they qualify for at once, rather than making them seek out benefits program by program. More important, he shifted the focus of government toward whether or not the customers — that’s us — are having a good experience getting what we deserve.

It’s a direction all lawmakers, from the federal level down to counties and cities, should follow.

One of the biggest barriers to government benefits is all of the red tape to untangle, particularly for programs that serve low-income people. They were the ones wrangling with the I.R.S.’s non-filer portal while everyone else got their payments automatically. Benefits delivered through the tax code, which flow so easily that many people don’t think of them as government benefits at all, mostly help the already well off. Programs for the poor, on the other hand, tend to be bloated with barriers like income tests, work requirements and in-person interviews. It’s not just about applying once, either; many require people to continually recertify, going through the process over and over again.

The hassle doesn’t just cost time and effort. It comes with a psychological cost. “You get mad at the D.M.V. because it takes hours to do something that should only take minutes,” Pamela Herd, a sociologist at Georgetown, said. “These kind of stresses can be really large when you’re talking about people who are on a knife’s edge in terms of their ability to pay their rent or feed their children.”

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