Connecting state and local government leaders
Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens?
Not long ago, a New York City data analyst who had been laid off shortly after the pandemic hit told me she had filed for unemployment-insurance payments and then spent the next six months calling, emailing, and using social media to try to figure out why the state’s Labor Department would not send her the money she was owed.
A mother in Philadelphia living below the poverty line told me about her struggle to maintain government aid. Disabled herself and caring for a disabled daughter, she had not gotten all of her stimulus checks and, because she does not regularly file taxes or use a computer, needed help from a legal-aid group to make sure she would get the newly expanded child-tax-credit payments.
A Colorado systems administrator with a chronic medical condition told me that switching jobs had caused an accidental lapse in his health coverage, which led to a cascade of paperwork over responsibility for a medical bill. He estimated that he had spent 100 hours resolving the issue.
Many Americans have stories like these. To make sure that the safety net catches us, to make sure that our social-insurance programs insure us, to make sure that we get what we pay Uncle Sam for, we work as our own health-care administrators. Our own tax professionals. Our own social workers. Our own disability-law experts. Our own child-support advocates, long-term-care reps, and public-housing officials.
In my decade-plus of social-policy reporting, I have mostly understood these stories as facts of life. Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the “time tax”—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.
The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people who are struggling to find a job, failing to feed their kids, sliding into poverty, or managing a disabling health condition.
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. The government rations public services through perplexing, unfair bureaucratic friction. And when people do not get help designed for them, well, that is their own fault.
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. Getting hit by a car means becoming your own hospital-billing expert. Having a disability means launching into a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–type legal battle. Needing help to feed a toddler means filling out a novel-length application for aid.
The Biden administration is expanding the welfare state, through the new child tax credit and other initiatives. Congressional Democrats are crafting a new New Deal. But little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist. And very little attention is being paid to making things work for the neediest—people short on time, money, and mental bandwidth.
The time tax needs to be measured. It needs to be managed. And it needs to end.
First, perhaps, we need to see it for what it is.
This is not easy to do, by design. 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.) The Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles has memorably described this system as a “kludgeocracy.”
Let’s take a tour d’horizon. The unemployment-insurance system was the primary bulwark against the economic ravages of the coronavirus recession, keeping the country’s finances afloat. It is, in fact, not a bulwark, but a patchwork of 53 unemployment-insurance systems, many of which are meant to frustrate users. Its designers’ goal was to “put as many kind-of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, ‘Oh, the hell with it; I’m not going to do that,’” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis admitted during the pandemic. “It was definitely done in a way to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.” An estimated 9 million Americans left jobless by the pandemic never got a single unemployment payment.
Or consider the tentpoles of American assistance for working families: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps; the earned-income tax credit; and the child tax credit. Food stamps reach some 40 million Americans in 21 million households. In many states, applying for them involves a quick online request, a quick approval, and a quick turnaround to start getting benefits. But not always. SNAP is workfare, meaning that adult participants judged to be “able-bodied” need to log their work hours or demonstrate that they are looking for a job. Folks get thrown off the rolls constantly for, say, not having a functioning computer. (These work requirements do not boost employment, by the way.)
As for the earned-income tax credit, 22 percent of eligible recipients miss out on the generous benefit because they do not file or misfile their taxes. “Credit eligibility depends on marital status at the end of the year, earnings, income, and citizenship status,” the Tax Policy Center notes. “There are additional tests of relationship and residency for people with children. Eligibility can vary from year to year.”
Experts worry that millions of children—mostly ones growing up in unstable, extremely poor households—will miss out on the new child allowance because their parents do not know that the policy exists and will not sign up for it. The online portal for households that do not regularly file taxes is only in English, written in difficult-to-parse language, and not mobile-friendly. No paper or telephone sign-up option exists. The government has thus far developed no plan to reach the poorest kids.
The time tax is also imposed through smaller, clunkier programs. Getting housing aid is excruciating. Consider the process in Butte County, California. An applicant first needs to get on a waitlist for rental assistance. The waitlist opens only periodically, sometimes for just a few days at a time, when a “public announcement is placed in area newspapers” and information is posted on a website. A person needs to win a lottery to get on it, and then needs to wait—generally for half a decade. When finally selected, hopefuls are contacted by mail. Next comes an eligibility appointment, an application, and finally verification, which might or might not be successful, a process that “could take several weeks or months.”
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.
Applications are overlong and addled with headache-inducing questions too. This is one of dozens that recipients of Supplemental Security Income, aimed at the destitute elderly, must answer: “Have you or your spouse sold, transferred title, disposed of or given away, any money or other property, including money or property in foreign countries, since the first moment of the filing date month or within the 36 months prior to filing date month?”
The government often asks program participants to reapply, recertify, or log in with evidence of their neediness and worthiness. Should people mess up their paperwork, wait times for administrative help are long. And the threat of “sanctions,” “clawbacks,” garnishments, and other punitive measures looms.
I want to include my favorite example of the time tax here, a paperwork bother so absurd that it has a quality of the sublime. California has a program to provide low-income state residents with reduced-price ID cards through the DMV. To take advantage of the benefit, a person needs to fill out one Form DL 937. Individuals cannot access and fill out this PDF themselves, however. It is not posted online. Instead, applicants have to do so through a “qualified verifier of income,” such as a social worker at a homeless shelter.
The safety-net and social-insurance programs are perhaps where the time tax is most pronounced, most purposeful, and most deranged. But the problem is broader. Fragmentation, complication, and individualization—whereby citizens become responsible for the administrative work of the state—are persistent features of American life.
Our country’s health system is an infuriating morass. Americans spend more on health coverage per capita than citizens in any other economy do, for large coverage gaps, middling health outcomes, and obscene amounts of red tape. The sick are called on to fight for insurance to insure them and carers to care for them—to negotiate what procedures are covered, investigate and interrogate billing practices, and qualify themselves for government subsidies. This system does not work much better for providers than it does for patients. Physicians report filling out an average of 37 insurance preauthorization forms a week, and spending twice as much time on clerical work as on patient care.
Our tax system operates on the same “you figure it out” model, one that costs citizens 9 billion hours a year. Many other wealthy economies let their citizens know if they owe anything in taxes or send them prefilled forms to review once a year. The IRS could do that, but tax-prep companies’ lobbying and Congress’s disregard have maintained the miserable status quo.
The United States also makes working parents go it alone during the hardest and most crucial years for child development: It provides public school for kids ages 5 through 17, but does little or nothing for kids 4 or younger. A chronic undersupply of day-care spots—and an even more meager supply of affordable day-care spots—spurs parents to spend hours and hours applying to different centers, and forces hundreds of thousands of parents out of the workforce entirely.
Want to get a higher education? The government shunts aspiring college students into complicated, discouraging financing schemes, saddling them not just with debt but with paperwork. A telling statistic: When one state flagship university offered a guarantee of “free” tuition to low-income kids, rather than a promise of “aid” worth the same amount, application rates jumped 42 percentage points and enrollment leapt 15 percentage points.
Voting is similarly difficult, as is getting benefits from a federal disaster program, opening a business or practicing a trade, rejoining the workforce with a felony on your record, applying to enter this country or become a citizen, and managing a disability.
The time tax is everywhere.
This is the part of the story where I would normally introduce an obscene tally of the hours Americans spend wrestling with our government bureaucracy.
I would demonstrate that they spend more time doing so the poorer and sicker they are. I would include data showing that many citizens give up on getting benefits—or do not receive benefits they qualify for—because of the time tax. I would estimate the value of the time Americans spend as their own benefits administrators, showing how such hassles reduce the functional value of government programs. I would reveal that Americans, with our freedom and our lean government and our skepticism of bureaucracy and our obsession with bootstrapping, spend more time doing paperwork than our compatriots in other nations, particularly ones with socialized health systems, national identification cards, and well-funded bureaucracies.
All of these things are true, as social workers, sociologists, civic technologists, and scholars of public administration attest—along with millions of plain-old citizens who have spent dozens of hours calling a government 800-number inexplicably available only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. But many of these suppositions cannot be substantiated with hard numbers; there just is not a lot of data out there. The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 does obligate Washington to measure and reduce regulatory burdens, but it applies only to certain kinds of paperwork. Thus, as a country, we have a hazy idea of how well our government is performing many of its central functions.
Even if we do not have a measure of the time tax itself, we have ample evidence of its effects. We know that millions of Americans do not receive the credits or benefits they qualify for. One in six eligible individuals fails to receive food stamps, for example; in Wyoming, the uptake rate is just 56 percent. This is in no small part due to the program’s administrative hassles. A new study in California found that families are six times more likely to drop out of SNAP the month they have to reconfirm their eligibility.
We also know that millions of Americans applying for Medicaid, unemployment benefits, welfare, and other programs are subject to “procedural denials,” and have their claims turned down because of supposed errors or “fraud.” (The government has no standard for what constitutes fraud when it comes to the safety net, by the way. It also has no standard measure of income.)
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.
The time tax is also racist, a straightforward instantiation of bias against Black and Latino families. Racism was a primary reason that the United States did not create universal benefit systems, as many European countries did a century ago. Today, programs used disproportionately by Black Americans have more complicated enrollment criteria and more time-consuming application processes than programs used disproportionately by white Americans. An application for cash assistance might involve an in-person interview, a drug test, and ongoing compliance with a work mandate; one third of recipients are Black, and another third Hispanic. Setting up a 529 requires no application and has no annual litmus-testing; the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 targeted “tests and devices,” such as a literacy tests, that discouraged voting among minority groups. Yet such “tests and devices” live on in the safety net.
In this way, the time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work? Uncle Sam “is making people’s lives difficult,” Jamila Michener, a professor of government at Cornell, told me. “That is not good for democracy! It doesn’t make people want to be a part of the polity.”
It also creates the need for businesses, charities, legal-aid groups, and civic-technology organizations to perform public administration on behalf of the government; our allegedly “lean” system forces the work of bureaucracy onto private citizens too. Homeless shelters spend countless hours enrolling people in Medicaid. Elementary-school teachers help parents navigate WIC, SNAP, housing programs, and charter lotteries. Businesses such as Intuit and H&R Block leech time and tax refunds from low-income Americans. “I always say that we should not exist,” Tracey Patterson of Code for America, a civic-technology nonprofit, told me.
Finally, the time tax takes a psychological toll. It is a way the government impresses poverty on people. It hurts people. It does so despite a growing pool of research showing that poor folks are less capable of taking on paperwork challenges than their richer counterparts: Poverty causes a dip in cognitive function equivalent to pulling an all-nighter.
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neurologist and researcher of stress, describes American poverty and American benefit programs as existing in a “vicious cycle.” “Unemployment, poverty, health challenges all generate enormous stress and, yes, this makes it harder to effectively and efficiently navigate what is needed in order to get help,” he told me. “That stress is then made far worse if it is abundantly clear that that potential source of help doesn’t really care what happens to you.”
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. For Democrats, it comes from a confidence in means-testing as the best solution to inequality and a fear of ever, ever giving anyone a benefit they might not really need; for Republicans, its foundation is a skepticism that government help really helps people and a knack for using rules and regulations to accomplish what might be hard to accomplish through legislation, such as the winnowing of the Affordable Care Act.
Over time, administrative burdens have been “best understood—and most effectively used—by political actors seeking to make government dysfunctional,” argue Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan in their comprehensive survey of American bureaucracy and rules.
But choices made by design can be undone by design, and if Democrats in Washington want to make the tax code fairer, expand the safety net, extend health insurance to everyone, and end child poverty, they should start with making what already exists work better.
Just before the COVID-19 shutdowns, I visited Michigan, the site of one of the country’s most aggressive efforts to end the time tax and an exemplar of the good that reducing government red tape can do. Six years ago, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services set out to simplify the application it uses for its major assistance programs, an initiative called Project Re:form.
At the time, the state’s central benefit application ran for 18,000 words, and many of the questions on it were invasive, unnecessary, and confusing. To help thin it down, Michigan hired a small nonprofit design firm called Civilla. “It was designed for federal and state compliance,” Michael Brennan, a founder of Civilla, told me. “It was designed around lawsuits. It was designed around technology. It was not designed around people.” To demonstrate the point, the team at Civilla had a group of local politicians sit down and do the paperwork themselves. “We handed them this 42-page application,” he told me. “They thought, Oh, it will be 15 minutes. Then they’d get to the question: ‘Tell me the date of the conception of your children.’”
A radical redesign slashed the number of words and questions by 80 percent, cutting the number of pages in half. It made the forms easier to read and understand, simplifying the language and using better layouts and graphics. As a result, Civilla found, the time it took to fill out the application dropped from an average of 40 minutes to just 16 minutes. The percentage of applications completed jumped from 72 percent to 94 percent. The time that state social workers spent correcting client errors dropped by 75 percent.
Using the new forms, the state saw higher success rates for applicants, fewer visits to its offices, and fewer errors. “It worked,” Robert Gordon, the former head of the state’s HHS program, told me. “It worked to get more people their benefits, faster.”
At the federal level, some initiatives like this are under way. The government has simplified the forms used to apply for student aid, for instance. More structural improvements are ongoing too: The Biden administration has blocked states from imposing work requirements in Medicaid, suspended the Trump administration’s “public charge” rules, and rolled out the new child tax credit. Congress has made simple, direct cash payments a centerpiece of its recession-fighting strategy. Still, the government needs to undertake a sweeping, root-to-stem effort to take administrative work away from nonprofits and families. As a whole, it needs to function more like Social Security and less like the DMV.
Uncle Sam first needs to get a grip on the problem. It needs to begin collecting hard data on the application and enrollment processes facing citizens, putting numbers to the time tax and analyzing it through the lens of race, gender, income, state of residence, and health and disability status. How much time does it really take single moms to get benefits for their kids? Which programs are available to them, and how many do they know about? What about people who do not speak English or are not literate? How different are the processes in Florida and Hawaii?
Then, the government needs to simplify. For safety-net programs, this means eliminating asset tests, work requirements, interviews, and other hassles. It means federalizing programs like unemployment insurance and Medicaid. It means cross-coordinating, so that applicants are automatically approved for everything for which they qualify.
Finally, it needs to take responsibility for the time tax. Congress needs to pump money into the civil service and into user-friendly, citizen-centered programmatic design. And the federal government needs to reward states and the executive agencies for increasing uptake and participation rates, while punishing them for long wait times and other bureaucratic snafus.
Such changes would eliminate poverty and encourage trust in government. They would make American lives easier and simpler. Yes, Washington should give Americans more money and more security. But most of all, it should give them back their time.
Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic.