We co-hosted a virtual panel discussion with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on the public’s experience applying for financial assistance from different pandemic relief programs.
Congress created and funded several different benefits to help fight the economic and health effects of the pandemic such as pandemic unemployment insurance (UI), but these benefits are often administered by different federal or state agencies with their own application processes. As a result, navigating these systems to apply for benefits requires considerable time spent filling out paperwork, submitting documentation, creating an online account, or waiting on hold. In this virtual roundtable, a panel of experts discussed the barriers applicants faced trying to access benefits and what the federal government can do to reduce them. Here are the issues they raised:
Individuals pay a variety of "costs" when trying to access benefits
Pamela Herd, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and author of Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means, emphasized that there are three types of costs that individuals pay when applying for pandemic relief benefits:
- Learning costs. Individuals must spend time researching and understanding the programs for which they are eligible.
- Compliance costs. Individuals must deal with red tape when attempting to access benefits and other barriers like websites glitches and long wait times on hold.
- Psychological costs. Applicants often experience stress, frustration, and anxiety when attempting to get benefits.
Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, explained that people found it difficult to understand the differences between the three new unemployment benefits programs, which one(s) they were eligible for, and who they received the benefits from (the federal government or their state). This confusion resulted in people applying for all three programs with the expectation that the government, or some other third party, would ultimately determine which program(s) they were eligible for.
Nina Olson, the executive director and founder of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, explained that these experiences and costs erode people's trust in the government and reduce the likelihood that they will return to access services or benefits. In effect, people remember the experience of applying for the benefit more than the benefit itself.
However, Olson noted that the Internal Revenue Service did an excellent job setting up a user-friendly online portal that helped certain people, like those that do not need to file a tax return, quickly file a return so they could receive their Economic Impact Payment(s), or individual stimulus checks.
Agencies must provide multiple options for individuals to access benefits and maintain those options
Simon-Mishel said it’s also important for agencies to make sure individuals stay enrolled in programs, which they can do by offering multiple customer service options. For example, individuals should be able to access benefits on a mobile device, computer, or by telephone. Herd noted that this is particularly important for people who don’t have the time nor the transportation to travel to an office to complete an application. In fact, during the pandemic, states suspended in-person interviews that are typically required to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Herd noted that other individuals, like those that live in areas without reliable internet, may need an in-person service option. But during the pandemic, customer service offices for the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service were closed, which disproportionately affected such underserved communities’ ability to apply for and receive pandemic relief.
Agencies must balance urgency with proper fraud controls
Simon-Mishel also noted that while fraud is an issue, unemployed individuals often live paycheck to paycheck so it was important to get benefits to them quickly. In cases where individuals received more unemployment insurance than they should have, she added, it was likely unintentional because they were confused about their eligibility.
Olson explained that the IRS has taken useful steps to reduce identity theft such as establishing a single office to verify taxpayers’ identities and adding more computer filters that recognize potentially fraudulent tax refunds. However, some of the filters produce high false positive rates, and because of staffing issues at the IRS taxpayers sometimes have to wait up to six months or longer to resolve the issue and receive their tax refund. Olson stated that if federal agencies increase their focus on fraud, they also need to make sure there are appropriate customer resources on the back end to handle the phone calls and questions that come with increased scrutiny.
This co-sponsored activity does not constitute or imply an endorsement of NAPA or any of its products or services by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or the United States government.
- Pamela Herd: Georgetown University, Professor of Public Policy
- Julia Simon-Mishel: Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Supervising Attorney
- Nina Olson: Executive Director and Founder, Center for Taxpayer Rights