Paperwork and the Poor

Our measures for preventing abuse of our social welfare system are preventing those who need it most go without.

Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz have an interesting quiz at the NYT Upshot titled “Could You Manage as a Poor American?” (When I first flagged it yesterday, it was titled “Are You Good Enough at Paperwork to be a Poor American?” They changed it for some reason.)

The subtitle, “See whether you make the kinds of mistakes that can cost poor families food or health insurance,” provides the setup.

It’s interactive, making excerpting challenging, but it’s all this sort of thing:

Q. Do you have paper mail you plan to read that has been unopened for more than a week?

(If Yes) A: 26 percent of Americans say yes. But in some states, failing to open your mail and quickly respond can cost you Medicaid coverage or food assistance.

There are several more but the point is the same: simple mistakes, carelessness, or distractedness can be catastrophic for those who rely on public assistance.

In Texas, families risk losing Medicaid if they don’t promptly open a letter they may not be expecting, find and copy their recent paystubs, and send them back — all within 10 days of when the letter was issued. In Indiana, families who need dental care must mail a monthly premium as low as $1, less than it usually costs a state to bill and record a payment. In West Virginia, some adults who receive food assistance must document their work hours every month.

These requirements were created in part to ensure that only people who truly qualify receive benefits. In some states, the rules have recently been tightened or soon could be. Yet the complexity and frequency of such tasks can mean that hurdles meant to exclude the ineligible often exclude those who are eligible but who are also disorganized or overwhelmed.

The taxpayers rightly want to ensure that they’re only providing benefits to those who qualify. But we’ve made the process of documenting that onerous and the penalty for making a mistake obscene.

The feature hit home for me because I’m am particularly terrible at these things and have gotten moreso as my responsibilities have piled up. I’m both saved by and undone by technology: I pay as many of my bills as possible automatically, which both frees me from worrying about it but makes it more likely that the others will fall through the cracks.

Since I make a decent living and am good for the money, the consequences are minor or nonexistent. Not so for the very poor.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    Things are pretty much the same for those navigating the criminal justice system. It’s gets even worse when you consider that a significant amount of CJ system-effected people are from below the poverty line – so they get it on both sides.

    I highly recommend the book “Automating Inequality” by Virginia Eubanks for an accessible, scholarly look at the end results of these issues.

    10
  2. drj says:

    But everyone knows you can’t trust poor people!

    After all, they make bad life choices and spend their money on lottery tickets and beer (or even meth if not closely monitored).

    That’s why they get food stamps instead of regular benefits. It’s bad enough as it is that they buy salmon and T-bone steaks with those instead of the 12 cent ramen. That’s also why you never give money to a beggar, you buy them a sandwich instead!

    On a more serious note, there have been plenty of studies that show that people tend to redirect the guilt they experience for not doing enough about poverty towards the poor. After all, as long as they brought it onto themselves, there is no reason to feel guilty yourself.

    And since the poor are themselves responsible for their situation, it follows that they can’t be trusted and must be monitored closely, which necessitates a whole bunch of bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through.

    And then there is always the fear that someone undeserving might be profiting off your tax dollars…

    3
  3. Scott says:

    These requirements were created in part to ensure that only people who truly qualify receive benefits.

    That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is that making it difficult is intentional. To make people jump through hoops not only prevents utilization of services but has the added value of humiliation.

    14
  4. Kit says:

    The taxpayers rightly want to ensure that they’re only providing benefits to those who qualify.

    Rightly? What sort of person, having agreed to fund benefits, prefers seeing the money eaten up by an administration that virtually guarantees that none of the undeserving receives benefits, fewer of the deserving do receive them, and the rest suffer needlessly? Racists and sundry fools who believe the racist framing of the issue, that’s who. Who would pay money to keep a poor, black baby from drinking milk just because a poor, Mexican baby might be drinking some, too?

    When it comes to justice, at least in the abstract, people prefer that some of the guilty go free lest an innocent suffer unjustly. I guess you never know when you might find yourself caught in the law’s net. But no white man need ever worry about being poor and black.

    8
  5. James Joyner says:

    @Kit: It’s perfectly reasonable to decide that we should provide, say, benefits to those who are unable to work because of a disability, and at the same time want to ensure that people who can work aren’t gaming the system.

    But, yes, requiring people who otherwise qualify for public-financed utilities to pay a $1 monthly fee, at a cost to the taxpayer of $10 a month, seems obviously motivated by something other than stewardship of the public treasury.

    5
  6. gVOR08 says:

    So various Republican measures are working as intended. It’s partly the Calvinist attitude that the poor deserve to be poor and should be punished for it. It’s partly a failure of empathy. But mostly it’s that there’s only so much welfare money to go around and Exxon Mobile paid for their subsidies fair and square. How many poor people ever gave Mitch McConnell a million dollars?

    ETA – I realized this may sound like a reply to James, above, but was written before seeing his comment.

    7
  7. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    “What can poor people pay you? Nothing!” Homer Simpson.

    1
  8. Han says:

    The taxpayers rightly want to ensure that they’re only providing benefits to those who qualify. But we’ve made the process of documenting that onerous and the penalty for making a mistake obscene.

    No, the taxpayers should rightly want to ensure money is being spent efficiently and effectively. If I own a candy store, and every day I lose a 50 cent candy bar every day to theft, I could just chalk it up to the cost of doing business, or I could install a $5000 camera system to reduce the losses to one candy bar a month. While I don’t like theft, it would be stupid of me to far outspend the losses on loss prevention. It would be like killing a fly with a sledgehammer, not only overkill, but I’ve destroyed my coffee table in the process. Now the suppliers of sledgehammers and coffee tables are going to tell me I’m a sucker for letting people steal from me, and try to get me riled up about it, but I’m not stupid. Unlike Rick Scott’s supporters in Florida who are convinced they should enrich him personally by having everyone who receives so much as a dollar in state money drug tested.

    The point that really needs to be made, is these rules and regulations have nothing to do with making sure someone is “deserving”. The people writing these laws don’t actually want to help the poor. They just want it to look like they are, and it’s those people’s fault for being “undeserving”. And if they can enrich themselves and their friends while feeding the hysteria, so much the better.

    6
  9. Gustopher says:

    A lot of the means testing also comes with a hard cliff. If you make $X, you get all the benefits, but if you make $X+1 you get nothing. Plus, some of the programs are wait-listed, so you then cannot requalify for a while.

    I have a poor friend who carefully ensures she never, ever makes more money, as that next dollar over $X would cost her and her kids a lot.

    I don’t think that’s how the system was intended to run, but if you give people bad incentives, they will behave badly. This is in the People’s Democratic Republic of Seattle, so there’s less of the “let’s punish the poor” as motive for designing things that way.

    2
  10. An Interested Party says:

    A lot of the means testing also comes with a hard cliff.

    How else do you decide who gets what? Programs designed to help the poor shouldn’t be used by people who aren’t poor and don’t need them…

    1
  11. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, yes, requiring people who otherwise qualify for public-financed utilities to pay a $1 monthly fee, at a cost to the taxpayer of $10 a month, seems obviously motivated by something other than stewardship of the public treasury.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this is just the result of accounting software and lazy thinking. E.g., The software requires a non-zero number for payment or the “failed to pay” automated alerts go off. The solution was to enter “$1” in the amount paid–but then the balance sheets would be off by several dollars every month, causing the accountant severe annoyance. So the solution was just “Make them pay a dollar–problem solved”.

    I’ve certainly seen these sorts of “solutions” before.

    4
  12. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s perfectly reasonable to decide that we should provide, say, benefits to those who are unable to work because of a disability, and at the same time want to ensure that people who can work aren’t gaming the system.

    As others have pointed out indirectly, there is a huge difference between liberals and conservatives in how much relative weight they put on those two objectives. Conservatives often behave as if minimizing abuse were the entire goal — to the extent that programs should be shut down entirely if you can’t eliminate the abuse. This is… irrational.

    When it comes to publicly funded assistance programs, why is the ONLY metric not “how much good are we doing for the people who need it, per dollar spent?”

    (For that matter, why aren’t conservatives just as irate about the benefits of tax cuts going to people who don’t need them? How is that different?)

    10
  13. Gustopher says:

    @An Interested Party: A gentle slope of declining benefits?

    If you quality for $5,000 worth of benefits if you earn up to $20,000/yr, there is a lot of incentive to earn exactly $20,000 (a $25,000 value) and a strong disincentive to earn $20,001 (you just lost $4,999)

    This creates a financial trap.

    Contrast with $5,000 worth of benefits that tapers out from $20,000 to $30,000 — losing $1 in benefits for every $2 earned. Earning $25,000 is still worth $27,500, and there is no point where earning more means you get less in total.

    7
  14. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao: No. just no.

    The laws are not being written with a deep knowledge of the intricacies of the problems of utility billing software.

    Also, there was a recent proposal to require a send insurance payment on the exchanges of $1/mo to cover abortion. That had nothing to do with billing software.

    2
  15. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT:

    When it comes to publicly funded assistance programs, why is the ONLY metric not “how much good are we doing for the people who need it, per dollar spent?”

    How do you define good?

    What about teaching poor people how to do teams of useless paperwork? It prepares them for jobs in the corporate world! That has value.

  16. Monala says:

    @An Interested Party: You can have gradual drop-offs rather than hard cliffs. There was a year that my husband and I were both unemployed. We received unemployment benefits and picked up temp jobs here and there.

    He and I went uninsured for the year, but covered our daughter under the SCHIP program (this was pre-ACA). Because we were above poverty level, we could buy into the SCHIP program at one of three monthly premium tiers: $25, $45, or $70 (it was free, obviously, for kids from families in poverty). Our income qualified us for the $45 a month tier.

    So you see, there are ways to design a program such that people above certain income levels but still in need can participate.

    3
  17. Kit says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s perfectly reasonable to decide that we should provide, say, benefits to those who are unable to work because of a disability, and at the same time want to ensure that people who can work aren’t gaming the system.

    To steer this back to yesterday’s discussion, it sounds like provide is consequentialist while ensure is deontological. Sure, we’d like to provide benefits as long as the consequences don’t result in someone gaming the system (which is an absolute no-no).

    Would you take the same position with regards to developing and procuring a weapons system? I mean to ensure that there was no corruption, not merely take reasonable steps?

    2
  18. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Many of these things cited make being “working poor” harder, specifically, since those folks often have little control over their schedule and minimal, if any, paid time off.

    Things like “You must show up on “x” date for an interview”, “you have three days to get these forms notarized”, “if you bring 90% of the required paperwork but miss one pay stub, your benefits are suspended and the next available appointment is in three months” are annoyances for me but can have dire real world consequences for people on the edge of survival.

    Re: benefits cliffs. There are plenty of tax breaks and benefits that involve phase outs. If upper middle class folks are able to retain some of their favorable tax treatment for retirement accounts on a scale between $100,000 and $250,000, surely we can find a way to phase out benefits targeted at lower income folks, also.

    8
  19. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    When it comes to publicly funded assistance programs, why is the ONLY metric not “how much good are we doing for the people who need it, per dollar spent?”

    Given recent discussions I’ll point out that you’re expressing a very consequentialist point of view. Wanting to make sure no one cheats is very deontological. (I expect they’d argue they’re just trying to save money, but I expect the money involved is small, and would you really believe them?)

  20. An Interested Party says:

    @Gustopher & Monala: Sensible enough…thanks for the perspective…

    2
  21. DrDaveT says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Given recent discussions I’ll point out that you’re expressing a very consequentialist point of view. Wanting to make sure no one cheats is very deontological.

    Exactly. The proof is in how many people would rather waste $1000 than have $100 go to the undeserving.

    I’ll echo a previous commenter in noting that you can’t infer consequentialism vs. deontology just from the policy position. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” is consistent with both a deontological stance or a sincere belief that “Once you’ve paid the danegeld, you’re never rid of the Dane.”

    1
  22. James Joyner says:

    @Kit:

    Would you take the same position with regards to developing and procuring a weapons system? I mean to ensure that there was no corruption, not merely take reasonable steps?

    While it obviously doesn’t work out that way, for a variety of reasons, we put enormous hoops and hurdles into the acquisitions process—at extreme cost and aggravation—precisely to ensure against fraud, waste, and abuse.

    I don’t deny that some of the processes are, as other commenters have suggested, mean-spiritedness on the part of politicians who aren’t all that interested in helping the poor. But some of it is just bureaucratic responses to competing objectives from lawmakers. Like it or not, taxpayers get irate when they see their money wasted.

    (And it’s not just the poor. Or contractors. Look at the reaction we get when bureaucracies spent too much on donuts for mid-level civil servants at a work retreat.)

    2
  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Totally different area, but the original MIT solar car builders ran into something similar when they tried to get it registered at the Massachusetts DMV: “How many cylinders does it have?” “Zero.” “Zero?! That’s impossible!” “It’s a solar car. It runs on batteries. There aren’t any cylinders.” “Well, the computer will only take 1 through 4 as an answer…” (I think it was that original visit that also started the tradition in Massachusetts of solar cars getting registered as motorcycles.)

  24. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. If anyone wants a perfectly putrid example of the snafus that can arise when you combine mindless bureaucracy with “a policy of discouraging people”, look at what the Home Office in the U.K. has managed to do over the years. It’s been one scandal after another: Windrush, etc.

  25. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Consider the possibility that the roadblocks and administrivia are intended to force people out of eligibility while maintaining deniability.

    “We do everything we can for those people. We didn’t cancel their benefits or deprive them of anything. They lost their benefits because they failed to do A / B / C, etc.”

    I’d call it a backdoor method for accomplishing what many conservatives want to accomplish anyway – shrinking welfare rolls.

    8
  26. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: I’d expect it to work like any human endeavor — flawed, Pursuing at best 80% of the stated objective, with areas ripe for abuse, modest efforts to reduce the abuse, and dishonest nay-sayers decrying the failures as if they are the end of the world.

    Private companies are really no better, they’re just less transparent.

    4
  27. mattbernius says:

    @Guarneri:
    Man who votes to destroy social service system feigns surprise when social service system is destroyed.

    And, again, proves he’s a quality human being.

    6
  28. Kathy says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    It may also serve to discredit government programs. “See? We tried helping them and it only made things worse. That’s government for you!”

  29. An Interested Party says:

    @Kathy: In the same way that Republicans/conservatives get elected, screw things up, and then talk about how horrible the government is…

    2