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Transcript for Roundtable Event: What's it like applying for pandemic relief funds?

Event: Roundtable: What's it like applying for pandemic relief funds?


Transcript text:

Rob Storch:
Good afternoon, everyone. My name's Rob Storch. I'm the inspector general at the National Security Agency. And I'm the chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the PRACs Identity Fraud Reduction and Redress Working Group. As many of you may know, the PRAC was created by Congress in the CARES Act to protect pandemic relief money from fraud, waste, and abuse, and to let the public and policy makers know whether the money reached those that it was intended to help. I'm actually still new to the PRAC, but we're very excited to partner with the National Academy of Public Administration. For what I understand to be the fourth time with this event in particular aimed at discussing and raising awareness of the public's experience, applying for financial assistance from different pandemic relief programs, while Congress created or funded several different benefits to help fight the economic and health effects of the pandemic of course.
    The benefits were administered by different federal or state agencies and each had their own outreach and application process. Ultimately, it takes time for people to navigate these different systems and to apply for benefits. The time spent is spent filling out paperwork, submitting documentation, creating an online account, waiting on hold. And in many cases, regrettably finding out that you're a victim of identity theft. With all this in mind as agencies across all levels of government, continue to distribute the $5 trillion in pandemic relief funds.
    The key questions are, what have we learned about making it easier for people to apply to get benefits and what challenges remain? The panelists you're going to hear from shortly will help us to answer these questions. They've all done valuable work across academia, nonprofits, and federal and local government in the area. And we're really very grateful for them taking the time to be with us today.
    I'm also pleased that the PRACs Identity Fraud Reduction and Redress Working Group is contributing in this area as well. This Monday, we released our key insights report on identity fraud reduction in redress, which assessed the previous work and recommendations made by inspectors general in this space and highlighted opportunities for other federal agencies to consider. A really important finding from the report demonstrated that federal oversight work in this area has not really focused on the redress for identity fraud victims, and as such coordinating oversight efforts in that area will be a major focus for the PRAC and for our working group moving forward.
    You can find the report I just showed you briefly on the PRACs website, So with that, let me thank everybody for tuning in today. Let me turn it over to Joe Mitchell of NAPA, who's going to be our moderator for today's event. Thanks everyone.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Thank you, Rob. So I'm Joe Mitchell. I direct strategic initiatives, international programs at the National Academy of Public Administration. We are an independent nonpartisan non-profit organization dedicated to adjust fair and inclusive government that strengthens communities and protects democracy. So consistent with that vision and mission. We're really excited to be working with the PRAC and talking today about what it's like to apply for Potomac relief funds.
    Super excited here to have a great group of panelists that I'll welcome to the virtual stage. Pam Herd from Georgetown University, Nina Olson, center for taxpayer rights and Julia Simon-Mishel from Philadelphia legal assistant. So welcome everyone. Super excited about having the conversation with you all. And I know we wanted to jump right in, but before we do that, I just wanted to ask each of you to briefly introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about yourself and what our audience today needs to know about you and your interest in this topic. So, Pam, I think I'll start with you.
Pam Herd:
Pam Herd. I'm a professor at Georgetown University in the McCourt School of Public Policy. And my interest most relevant for today is attention to the administrative burdens that people face when trying to encounter when interacting with government trying to access benefits, and especially thinking through sort of disproportionate consequences of those burdens for vulnerable populations.
Joe Mitchell:
Great, thank you. A very important perspective as we have our conversation today. Nina, I'm over to you.
Nina Olson:
Thanks. I'm Nina Olson. I'm the executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. Before founding the center, I was the national taxpayer advocate of the United States at the Internal Revenue Service from 2001 to 2019. And my job was to lead a unit that helped taxpayers solve their problems with the IRS and make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems. And before that, I founded the first low income taxpayer clinic in the country that was an independent legal aid, that was back in 1992. And as a tax attorney, I represented low income taxpayers in disputes before the IRS and in the court. So I've really focused on the impact of the tax laws on low income taxpayers, and then all taxpayers as a national taxpayer advocate.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Well, thank you for your service, all your work, and we look forward to your perspective today. Julia.
Julia Simon-Mishel:
Good afternoon, everyone. Julia Simon-Mishel, I'm the supervising attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. Philadelphia Legal Assistance is a legal services provider. We represent low income Philadelphians and their family on civil legal issues. I focus as my title suggests on unemployment benefits. Our unit represented thousands of individuals during the pandemic, but have been in this work for a decade as very specifically working on unemployment cases and much longer with public benefits work. And we represent unemployed individuals at all parts of the unemployment process. And during the pandemic, a lot of that was expanded to provide a lot of navigational services to individuals, just trying to figure out where to go, how to apply whether they were eligible. And I'll just add that for the last five years, I've also focused a lot on the use of new technologies and unemployment systems.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Well, thank you for all of your work with the public on these programs and for being here today. So I think everybody can see we've got a great group to talk today. I would say at the outset, if you have questions, please put those in the chat as you think of them. We've set aside some time for the panels to address audience questions and we'll get through as many of those as we can.
    So to get started, Pam, first of all, I just wanted to say, what we're going to focus on at this point is really kind of grounding. Make sure we think about, it's hard to believe this has been going on for over two years now, but it was such a shock, we've gotten used to living in this way, but it was a very different context that we were facing at that time. So wanted to kind of set that grounding. And so Pam, I thought I'd said, start with you around the CARES Act and other legislation created some new programs to provide relief to the public. And what were some of the challenges at a high level, the eligible people faced during this really difficult and sudden experience with the pandemic?
Pam Herd:
Yeah, I mean, broadly, people faced a wide array kind of administrative burdens challenges, basically navigating and accessing these really critical and generous benefits that were created via a range of legislative relief packages throughout the pandemic. And so just writ large, the one way to think about this, these burdens basically is that they entail three types of costs. So they're sort of learning costs, are people even aware that these benefits exist and that they're meant to help them and what they might need to do even if they learn about them to actually access and apply for them. So, one example around learning costs would be for example, the rental relief program, the emergency assistance program around rental relief. As of November, 2021, I believe only about a third of those funds had actually been distributed despite a ton of evidence that people were struggling basically in terms of meeting rent.
    And so some of that was literally just that people weren't aware that the program existed, the second type of cost are compliance costs. And these are what we typically think about when we think about like red tape or difficulty applying to benefits for the government. And this is like all the documentation, the paperwork, all those sorts of things. And I think the most ready example of these kinds of cost during the pandemic were around Unemployment Insurance. And so we all saw the news stories about crashing websites and phone lines. It didn't work and just a range of different barriers that people have encountered when they were trying to receive Unemployment Insurance.
    And then the last category are psychological costs. So this is the sort of stress, excuse me, frustration, anxiety, and even fear that people experience when they run into these burdens. And so, in the course of the pandemic, we had these programs like, increased food assistance. So rental assistance increased access to programs like Medicaid, but when people encounter these barriers, for example, say in the UI system, for some people they didn't have any money left in their checking account. And so there's just real fear, anxiety and frustration that can result from this stuff. And I think that's really important to think about for two reasons, one, we spent trillions of dollars on these relief programs really unprecedented, but for some people, and we've really seen this in media accounts, what they're left with is not the fact that we created these incredible programs and devoted enormous amounts of resources to trying to help them. Instead, what they're left with is these sort of bad feelings about what those encounters actually felt like.
    And that's not the kind of outcome any one of us want. And I would sort of add writ large, the Biden administration has issued two executive orders, as well as some rule clarifications around the Paperwork Reduction Act that really make it clear. It is a priority in his administration to address these things. And he was also very clear to articulate in particularly the recent guidance around the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Customer Experience Act. These psychological costs matters a lot too. And the agencies are required to take these things into account. When you think about sort of relative benefits and costs, when we enact these kinds of procedures.
Joe Mitchell:
Well, thank you of walking through the various costs that people have had and experiences. And certainly, from a good government standpoint, we don't want people to feel worse about government after having had this experience. And obviously, we want to improve their lives too. So, Julia, I know you're working a lot directly with people in Philadelphia, and would love to get your perspective on it.
Julia Simon-Mishel:
So, Pam hit the nail on the head in terms of the different burdens that individuals face. But when I think about what some of the biggest challenges were, especially initially when these programs were put in place, and I'm talking specifically about the unemployment programs, so our unemployment extension programs, the supplemental programs and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was the expansion of eligibility for unemployment benefits to millions of workers who otherwise would not have qualified, was communication. It was incredibly difficult for anyone to understand what different programs were, what they were eligible for, where they should apply, how they should apply, who was paying them. And this was made even more difficult by the fact that a lot of these programs were just kind of created in the CARES Act. And they were given to state unemployment systems that had been critically underfunded for the last decade, were lacking staff and resources, and who were very slow in their ability to kind of get out information, and were receiving information very slowly from the federal government when these programs started.
    And so there was just mass confusion for a lot of different people about what they should be doing. And the pains point, I think it created a lot of distrust in the government, especially since a lot of people ended up getting money that was lifesaving from these programs. We're going to talk a lot about the challenges, but at the start, it's important to recognize they worked. And we wouldn't be where we were today, if we didn't have those programs. But the vast majority of people I talked to, probably couldn't tell you what program they were getting money from. What part of the government was paying them, was it state, federal city? And why they were eligible for that program. And I think that made everything just so much harder for folks. And that was further complicated by the fact that because of the state federal hybrid with the unemployment system and the fact that dates were all tasked with implementing these programs kind of in 53 different ways.
    I would say that what ended up happening in a lot of states was all the wrong doors approach. Instead of a no wrong door, you can put your information here. We're going to figure out what you're eligible for. There were so many different things that people could apply for that they just applied for everything, thinking the government's going to figure out what I'm eligible for. They're going to pay me what I should get. And unfortunately, in a lot of places that didn't happen. People got paid out of the wrong program. Now the government's trying to take back money from them for those mistakes, and it's making them, I think, even less interested in engaging in these programs going forward instead of more interested, which is usually what you would think would happen coming out of a situation like this, where people received life saving benefits.
Joe Mitchell:
Well, thank you. It's truly was an unprecedented situation and people when they were trying to access this, were going through themselves. I mean, some horrific experiences and real fear for themselves and their family members and their communities. So Nina, you have done a lot of work. You worked at the IRS, you continue to work with the IRS, and over time, it strikes me that it's role has expanded. It's not just a tax collector, but it's actually a benefits disperser. And I'd love for you to tell us a little bit more about that evolution and especially during the pandemic, because I think that's a critical context to the conversation today.
Nina Olson:
Yeah. And I think that the comments that both Pam and Julia have made about both burden, but also the impact on trust is critical in this discussion. Because if someone has never interacted with an agency and suddenly has a bad experience up front, that's going to color in many ways, their willingness to come back to an agency and may make the agency be working from a deficit rather than a positive position.
    Back in 2010, I recommended to the IRS that it adopt a dual mission statement, because it had traditionally viewed itself as a revenue collector and as a law enforcement agency. But Congress had continued over time to give it social benefit programs to administer. And the predominant one by 2010 was the Earned Income Tax Credit, was a refundable credit that went to working poor families and was one of the major federal poverty programs, anti-poverty programs for families. And it was administered by the internal revenue service. And it just seemed crazy that we would be taking the same approach to this program and a population that was very different from people who might be trying to park money overseas, or things like that.
    And as time went on, actually the IRS, the Child Tax Credit was expanded, the Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded. The IRS was given the premium tax credit to subsidize the entire healthcare of the United States. And so you see more and more programs going in, and then with the advent of the pandemic, well, in 2008, it was given the responsibility to get out economic stimulus payments during the recession. And so it actually had to under that legislation, had to reach out to taxpayers like Social Security recipients, et cetera, who had no obligation to file returns. And it was making them file returns. And this was the Social Security. Elderly and the disabled, they were not necessarily equipped to file these returns.
    And as a lesson that was learned from that was when we came around to the Economic Impact Payment and the CARES Act, Congress said, "IRS, we want you at least for Social Security for railroad retirement benefits and also for veterans affairs that you utilize the data that is already on hand and all of these people have direct deposit accounts or debit cards with the government, make those payments directly through them if they don't show up on an income tax return." What that left for the IRS delivering Economic Impact Payment, was the group of people who did not have any filing requirement whatsoever, did not have an interaction with the federal government in any one of these programs that I've just mentioned and needed to be brought into the system.
    And I think that the IRS did, first of all, a miraculous job in getting the payments out, turning on a dime, the legislation passing in March and getting them out the very beginning of April, that's extraordinary. But where they fell down and what proved to be the real challenge was reaching this population they'd never reached before. And I think some of that is because they had failed over the years to really recognize and prepare for their role as a benefits administrator.
Joe Mitchell:
Got it. Yeah. I mean, it's a really important part of the story, because we rely on the IRS more and more for things that traditionally that they didn't do. So I know we will continue talking about this, but I think that's important for our audience to really understand. We also have been talking a little bit about data. And so I don't know, Pam, I would like to talk with you about the kind of data that we have. You talked about the different cost. What does the data show us about the financial cost associated with applying for benefits and what data don't we have that you think that we need?
Pam Herd:
Well, another way to think about this is just basically broadly, what data do we have on the administrative burdens in these programs and the pandemic relief programs and how, and their impact on beneficiaries. And we know some things, we don't know a lot of things. What I would generically say that we know is that programs that already existed, so for example, SNAP, they increased benefits for food stamps. Those programs worked really well. Burdens actually got lower in SNAP. So they reduced the requirement that you show up for an in-person interview, both to receive benefits or to maintain eligibility for them. That was a resounding success indeed. Some states like Wisconsin are now sort of eliminating that requirement by and large for their SNAP interviewees, so that's a huge reduction in burden. We know that from existing empirical evidence.
    But programs that were sort of new, there was a food stamp program that was brand new, which was meant to provide additional supplements to offset the fact that kids weren't getting school lunches, did not go well. It was slow off the ground, a lot of variation across states and how successfully they delivered those dollars. In short, basically when you started these brand new programs, states localities, and to some extent even the federal government just didn't have the capacity to turn around on a dime and start a brand new program. So I think that's really one big picture part here about what we know from existing evidence about these programs.
Joe Mitchell:
Yeah. So kind of it was easier if you used existing programs, people were already plugged under those agencies, knew how to manage those much easier. Well, I think that that gets to some for others of you. Julia, I'd like to get your sense on kind of the pandemic and the extent to which you've seen barriers and administrative burdens being reduced or actually being more difficult. And this all gets to, how do people even know to apply?
Julia Simon-Mishel:
So we're going to talk about the downside of this later, but one of the, I think most important aspects of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which is designed after the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, which has helped folks in natural disasters for decades is that there was not a requirement to provide documentation upfront of any sort of loss of work or previous income. And that's really important when people are experiencing trauma, because people are losing their homes, they're moving, they're with different foot people and trying to figure out what documents you need, find those documents. And as we'll get into a little bit later, figure out how to use technology to upload those documents are incredible barriers for a lot of individuals. And so this program was able to pay people quickly because they were not required upfront to provide a lot of that documentation. And it did work on self certification.
    Like I said, we'll talk about the other side of that and what we need to do going forward. But I think it's important to remember that there was a reason for that, that in that moment that risk analysis fell on the side of, we need to pay people now, because in our society, especially low income workers, they're living paycheck to paycheck. And if you go two, three weeks without pay, you are in serious trouble. And so the need to get money out quickly was incredibly important.
    The second thing in terms of reducing barriers, I would say was expanded eligibility. What a lot of folks might not realize is that over the last two decades, the recipient rate for unemployment has dropped considerably. There are so many fewer people accessing these benefits that are eligible for them than there used to be. And there are so many fewer people who are eligible to begin with because of a lot of drastic legislation passed at the state level, again, because it's a state federal hybrid. And so Pandemic Unemployment Assistance allowed people to access benefits who otherwise would've been denied by their states. And this is especially important for Black and Brown workers who have been shown to have even less access to state unemployment benefits and whom we believed benefited greatly from the PUA program. Although, I'll note kind of on the data that we don't have a ton of demographic data in the unemployment program, especially because of the various data collected by states and then provided to the federal government.
    But the reduction, sorry, the reduction of barriers created by expanding that eligibility. I think saved millions of people during this pandemic. And it's something that as an unemployment advocate, I've had to turn away a lot of people over the years and explaining why they're not eligible, even though they need a decent amount of money last year, working, they're still not financially eligible for benefits. And during the pandemic, it was amazing to be able to say, oh, you lost your job due to the pandemic? Well, pretty much no matter what, there's going to be a benefit for you. And that's really unique. And I think created a vital safety net for folks during this traumatizing time.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. So expanding the benefits, allowing self certification, not a lot of documentation, those were things that helped reduce barriers with Unemployment Insurance. Nina, I wanted to get your perspective on the programs that you track and what you've seen in terms of the outreach about how people know to apply and how burdens and barriers have been or could be reduced.
Nina Olson:
Well, I think there were a couple things. One is, of course, as I mentioned earlier, it brought the Economic Impact Payments and the Advanced Child Tax Credit brought populations of individuals into the tax system, that it had no interaction with the tax system. And so for the Economic Impact Payments early in 2020, the IRS joined up with a software provider to create what they called a non-file or portal, someone who didn't have a requirement to file a return, but could go in. And instead of having to fill out all the forms, which would be just an incredible compliance burden and a learning burden and a psychological burden like, what am I doing? Am I going to get it right or wrong?
    The taxpayers were able to just say, my income is below 12,000, some odd dollars. If I'm single or 24,000, if I'm married finally jointly, and they could also enter their children in and just push the button and the return would go through, and then that would generate a return so that they could get their Economic Impact Payments. And that was a very important development. Later on, Code for America created a much more user friendly one, but the problem with this was it was digital. And we are in the midst of a pandemic where the populations that are most in need of using it, have no support system physically there to help them. And it was not mobile friendly. It was not mobile adaptable. And so, whereas many people would have iPhones or cell phones, at least, smartphones that they could use, they weren't able to really access this and it wasn't translated into Spanish either. So that became an issue as time went on.
    I think the other thing that the pandemic did was it forced the IRS to be in a position to work with groups that it normally didn't do work with, because they were not groups that were providing free tax preparation to taxpayers. They were groups that were providing other services to individuals who were in this new population. And it brought in a whole new universe of advocates and partners. And I think that has expanded the IRS's reach. But I've also heard from those groups that the IRS really doesn't know how to talk to them, and it doesn't understand what their work is and their relationships are and what they need from the IRS in order to really make those connections and bring people in. But I think that the groundwork is there, that if you build on that, and again, coming back to that, you adopt a second line of business approach, like this is my mission. One of my goals is to work with these groups and I need to have the staff that knows how to do it. You've got the foundation there.
    I can talk later on about some of the challenges that we faced, but I think that those are some things that are very, very positive.
Joe Mitchell:
Good. Well, talk a lot about the challenges as we go through, but it is always good to hear some of the positive things that are happening. And Pam, I wanted to go back to you. And just based on this conversation in your own research, are there other things that you've seen federal agencies do to help improve the experience that the public has, for applying for benefits?
Pam Herd:
Sorry. So broadly, one thing that has happened under the Biden administration is the issuing of like two executive orders and rule guidance around the Paperwork Reduction Act. So I'll just sort of briefly describe those to provide a framework for thinking about what executive agencies and state and local governments can do and are doing. So the first executive order was around advancing racial equity and that executive order specifically highlighted the degree to which burdens were more likely to be encountered biracially minoritized groups. So for example, we know Black beneficiaries on average face much higher burdens in programs like Unemployment Insurance, as well as a bunch of different social welfare benefit programs. The second executive order was, which is actually explicitly titled... Sorry, let me just pull up my... The executive order on transforming federal customer experiences and service delivery to rebuild trust in government.
    That executive order was very specifically largely focused on reducing administrative burdens with part of the broader point being, this is really undermining people's trust in government, which has much larger implications for what the government can do and what people are willing to try to let the government do going forward. And then the third one was new guidance around the Paperwork Reduction Act. So the Paperwork Reduction Act in theory is supposed to help reduce compliance costs by requiring federal agencies to document how burdensome eligibility and application processes are for programs in practice. So it wasn't used very effectively.
    In practice at best what agencies would do is just sort of say, oh, here's the form that you have to use to apply for benefits. How long does it take you to fill it out? But it wouldn't, for example, include things like, how much money did you have to spend to get all the records together to provide documentation? How much time did you spend traveling to different places to collect those records? As well as things like the psychological costs, actually, they were explicit, that agencies at this point need to start documenting psychological costs and thinking through those as well as these sort of learning and compliance costs as well.
    So agencies have a lot of tools. And to be clear here, this guidance applies to federal agencies, but it does also apply to state, county and local governments that administer most of these programs, these are the Unemployment Insurance, SNAP, Medicaid. A lot of these programs are effectively administered with a partnership between the federal government, state governments and local governments. So this applies to all of those groups, anyone administering these programs. So my point is basically that these agencies, state governments, everyone has a tool. If they want to reduce burden, they've been given permission to basically do that, not just permission, but sort of a requirement that they have to start taking this seriously.
    Now, in the context of the pandemic, I'll just point to two specific examples where this was used really effectively basically. One, in-person interviews, there was a dramatic reduction across programs and requirements for in-person interviews for services. And we know based on a lot of empirical data that that plays a huge rule, those in-person interviews. It impedes both take up, but it also impedes people's ability to stay on programs like SNAP in particular. And so states had the flexibility that they didn't have to require people to do those interviews. A lot of states took advantage of that. And going forward now, the federal government has basically said you can continue with those flexibilities, at least around the in-person interviews. And I know Wisconsin for example, is doing that.
    The second real improvement was around one of the ways that we lose people or difficulties that people face, is not just getting on a program, but staying on a program. So one of the things that happened during the pandemic was that with Medicaid effectively, it was very difficult for states to move people off of the Medicaid program. But we know that there's a ton of churn. We know that large numbers of people lose access to their Medicaid benefits when they're supposed to be documenting that they're still eligible for those benefits, largely because they can't navigate the process of doing it, not because they're not still eligible for the program. And we saw a huge reductions in burdens associated with that.
    We can talk later about some challenges going forward once states have to start redoing those processes again. But I think it was an incredible lesson about the consequences of recertification in terms of people maintaining eligibility for programs, even when they're still eligible, and the consequences of those burdens during those processes.
Joe Mitchell:
Right. And so it sounds like we've developed some new tools to make things easier for people. And we just need to just continue to build on that as we move forward. So those are some good things to talk about. We also, obviously there are various challenges I know in terms of different... The program designs for applicants, PRAC has talked about how, for example, FEMA's funeral assistance program really had only one single option for applying, and that was the phone. So Julia, I'd like to ask you kind of what's your take on that? How important is it for the public to have multiple options to apply for benefits and what is the impact of that on recipients?
Julia Simon-Mishel:
So going off quickly, what Pam just said there, when we talk about accessing benefits, there are two aspects, one is initially applying and getting benefits, and the second is staying on those benefits. And before kind of focusing on the first, I just want to agree with Pam, that keeping people enrolled in benefits is one of the most important aspects of successful programs here. And that was a huge issue in the unemployment program, that there were many different cutoffs for folks at different times that were unexplained. And if you put yourself in the position of somebody who waited five months to get their benefits initially, you get benefits for a month and then you get cutoff and you have no idea why. I think, well, one number we don't really understand is how many people we lost in that part of the process, how many people give up in that moment, given everything else going on in their life.
    And just one example of that is the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. This was the weak extension for unemployment, that got people many additional weeks of benefits. In Pennsylvania initially, you were automatically enrolled in that, when you exhausted your state benefits. You just kept filing and if they saw you were eligible for it, they continued to pay you into that extension. In June of 2021, Pennsylvania changed its practice. And all of a sudden made people, when they upgraded their technology, start having to apply for the extension, which was incredibly confusing. And we are still dealing with people who never got the extension because of that shift, because the burden was placed back onto individuals to try to keep themselves on that program. In terms of applying, this actually was a core struggle for those trying to access unemployment, which is that, over the last decade, we've moved these systems more and more online.
    And I have lots of clients that love to access things on their phone, love to get emails. But I also have lots of clients that cannot figure out how to navigate smartphone and who want to be able to have a piece of paper in front of them, and almost all clients of mine, regardless of whether they're technologically savvy or not, want to speak to a human, especially when they are confused about a process. And for most of the unemployment benefits during the pandemic, the only way to access them was through online applications. States ostensibly had telephone numbers that you could call, but those numbers were inaccessible due to the number of people trying to reach. You saw states having days where they're set up in parking lots, trying to have people come in and give them paper applications, because so many folks struggled with the online applications.
    And so there really is a need for multiple channels and options. And we have to figure out how to correctly and efficiently staff and run call centers, if those are going to be how people access these agencies. And you saw this impact people in really horrible ways. We had a lot of clients who came to us later, who wanted to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, but didn't speak English, didn't have access to a computer, couldn't do it on a smartphone. And so they went to a friend, a family member, someone in the community who was advertising that they would help. They gave that person their information, that person applied for the benefits, and that person ran away with the benefits. And these people not only never got the benefits, but the government considers them accountable for that because they gave their information to someone else.
    Well, they gave their information to someone else because they were desperate and the government wasn't meeting the need in that moment that it needed to. It wasn't providing access. It wasn't providing support. And so when we think about this, it's important to remember that people do struggle with technology still. And Nina touched on this earlier with the GetCTC app. Any sort of online application has to be mobile responsive. It has to be available in many different languages. You need support centers, call centers that offer different languages for assistance. And at the core of all of this, we have to keep going back to plain language, the easier you make these systems and programs to understand, the less people will struggle and will need these additional channels. Especially, if you try to take complicated legalese and translate that into another language, it becomes just impossible. So coming back to multiple different options for people to apply and simplifying the materials and applications and questions involved in each of those processes.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Yeah. Simplicity, multiple channels. Pam, I'd like to ask you about this also, the multiple options question and how do we ensure that that's provided for people?
Pam Herd:
Yeah. I'd second everything Julia said. The one thing I would just sort of add is, we have... I just want to emphasize how much evidence we have about the consequences when you don't provide multiple types of methods of access. So for example, there have been a lot of closures of Social Security Administration, field offices. And those closures, we have data showing that the most vulnerable populations, people with the most severe kinds of disabilities were the ones who were most significantly affected by those closures and were much less likely to apply for and then consequently get benefits. And these are people we absolutely would expect to be eligible and obviously need those benefits. So it has real consequences. So we know generically speaking that only online access is problematic for low income populations, including in rural areas, who have trouble accessing broadband as well as just sort of internet literacy skills, huge problems for older adults.
    But the flip side of course, is that you don't only want to offer in-person because for other people, for example, for low income populations and urban area or low income populations, generally speaking, who are working multiple jobs, for example, have young kids, asking them to show up at an office an hour away from them at a specific time that they have no control over to keep on a program like that. That's not what I mean when I say like, it's good to have access to in-person services. That's not helpful. So it's really about these sort of multiple modes that's just super critical.
Joe Mitchell:
Yeah. Got it. You need to have multiple ways for people to gain access, not one way. So continuing with the theme of kind of what people experienced and whether it's easier to access benefits from certain programs. Nina, I wanted to turn to you and ask kind of one to build on the conversation we've already been having, but also just in general, which communities are affected most by the resources required to receive the benefits of these programs?
Nina Olson:
Well, in the context of the IRS and the programs it delivered, if you were a taxpayer, then you were already in the system, but for the population that was brought in for the Economic Impact Payments or the Advanced Child Tax Credit, that did not have filing requirements and maybe even no income whatsoever. What you really saw were obviously the low income or no income, which often had large percentages of Black, Hispanic, Indigenous immigrants, and folks from Puerto Rico where there was very little infrastructure and a footprint of the IRS in place. And then also you had people with special needs, like domestic violence survivors or people who had disabilities or were elderly. And so all of them are in that population. And I think the IRS's experience with its phones and it was of course, shut down itself, just like Social Security was.
    But as it created this filing portal, there was literally no backup support for people having challenges. And along the way, the IRS hired contractors using some of the money. But the problem is that all the contractors could do was just, they could maybe answer the phone and they could read FAQ answers that were already posted on the website, but they couldn't see the taxpayers accounts because that's confidential tax information and only IRS employees can see that. So it actually increased the frustration of people who had sat on the call for even hours to get through only to be read something from an FAQ online that they had already read themselves or somebody else had. And the real question that they had, they couldn't ask. And often they were transferred to another line where they waited hours until they got what is called in the IRS world, a courtesy disconnect, which I can tell you, there's nothing courteous about it when you're disconnected.
    So you just don't have that staffing set up and the disaster planning for what, if everything shuts down, how do you maintain a call site? And I think that really affected folks, they weren't able to get issue resolution. They weren't able to get information. The other thing that I saw, which goes to both the urgency of the payments, but also not really understanding the population. In the first round of Economic Impact Payments, kudos to the IRS getting them out quickly and creating the non-file or portal. What they said was if you are a Social Security recipient or a VA recipient or any... Not one of these other populations, where we're going to automatically pay you money out, you don't have to even file a return. But if you have a child and you want to get the payment for your child, you need to come in and fill in a return because we don't know about whether you have children or not.
    Well, that's a legitimate issue. And they created the portal to make it relatively simple, if you can navigate it. Well, the problem was that with Social Security folks, and who were old age and disability retired and disabled, the IRS gave them less than 40 hours to come in on an online portal to complete this tax return and list their children in April, 2020, when there was no support systems available to people. And if you didn't come in by that date, the IRS's position was, well, you have to wait until April, until next year file a tax return and claim it then. Good news, you can still get it. Well, that's not good news.
    And of course, Julia's legal aid brought a lawsuit that ultimately caused the IRS to rethink that and opened up the portal again, so people could enter their children's information and get supplemental payments for their children. But you just have to think, if you were really thinking about the population and understood the needs of the population and the compliance burdens and the learning costs and the psychological costs, then you would actually have said, okay, we're trying to get this money out really quickly. And so for the first round, if you can come in by this date, we will give you your payments, but don't worry because once a month we'll issue more payments for children. So if you miss the first round, you can come in the second round, then we'll do that. You don't have to wait until next year. And instead, they created this great distress and also burden on themselves because ultimately through the result of the lawsuit, they ended up having to do the very thing that they denied for five months that they had the capacity to do.
    And they got bad press when it would've been a good press situation, that they were really recognizing the needs of folks. We've also seen that same kind of challenge with survivors of domestic violence because the payments are going out to families that are mixed families. They may have based be because they were married the year that the advanced payment was calculated on. They're no longer married and they have the kids and they should be getting the payments, but the payments are going to someone else. That goes to an issue we're going to talk about later. But I think that that's a challenge for agencies under this crunch time, and we should take these experiences to really think how to design systems going forward, that we don't set up those kinds of conflicts.
Joe Mitchell:
Got it. Thank you for that. Definitely we do want to talk as we move forward around kind of what... What does this mean for the future? So we're not just bemoaning the past, so obviously we're trying to be constructive and think through, what does this mean for us moving forward? So I did want to say, please put in your questions in the chat, if you're an audience member. We will get through as many of these as possible. I can keep firing away questions, but I want to make sure we get some of your questions answered also.
    So wanted to move on to the whole issue of kind of the balance of reducing burden and minimizing fraud, certain programs, Julia, as you've talked about like Unemployment Insurance, allowed applicants to self-certify that they were eligible, it made it easier to apply and receive benefits, but we have heard concerns about fraud. And so I was wondering what your take is on how the federal government can really strike that balance between reducing burden and minimizing fraud.
Julia Simon-Mishel:
So one thing to recognize, and I think a lot of people listening in already know this is that when we're talking about fraud in this context, we are talking about what was seen during the pandemic with primarily the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was international criminal syndicate fraud in the program. The use of stolen identities to take benefits that were owed to other individuals, applying for benefits in somebody else's name. We're not talking about the individuals just trying to kind of get benefits that they are not eligible for. Because I said before, the vast majority of people who got benefits, they weren't eligible for, got them because they were confused, and made mistakes trying to navigate this program.
    The regular unemployment program for many years has had cross-matches with employer records that prevented a lot of fraud that came about during the pandemic. But that was of course missing from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program because the federal government, and specifically within the department of labor and the state unemployment agencies don't have wage information for folks who are non W-2 workers generally. So they had no way to do a backend cross-match and confirm anything for these applications. And so there wasn't that kind of added level of protection. And what you saw was that these criminal syndicates found ways to use kind of bots to file mass applications in multiple different states, and that's kind of how we got to where we are now. And now of course they are also trying to attack the regular state unemployment programs. So when you talk about kind of balancing interests here, part of this has to do with the need in the moment. So in March, April of 2020, the pandemic is hitting.
    I think that the top priority is getting money to people in a timely manner, and so some other things are going to take a backseat to that. A different points, the risk analysis may be different, but I think it's really important that access be maintained front and center in all of these conversations in terms of how to do that. One thing that I've been seeing for many years, and especially since this pandemic has started, is that these syndicates were able to file for benefits in 53 different states, because we have 53 different state unemployment run programs. And not, let's say a single application that would then direct individuals to different states. So they were able to use the same trick over and over in different states. And that's because of this kind of hybrid system we have with a federal government that has unfortunately very little control at many times over what states do and how they run these programs.
    When it comes to identity verification, which it seems to be where we're going here, how do you stop criminal syndicates that are stealing identities or using the synthetic identities, is that people have to verify their identity to get benefits. And we're starting to move in that direction for a lot of programs and that's providing its own set of challenges. So to the extent that you're going to use any sort of digital identity verification, I would say, you need to make sure that there are kind of a plethora of documents you're willing to accept. Like I have clients with a lot of different documents with their information, their address, their Social Security Number that are not necessarily their birth certificate, their Social Security card or their driver's license. A lot of places required very specific documents, when... I believe there's a much wider array of documents that people could use to prove their identity.
    A lot of places only offered digital options. We need in-person off ramps. There are a lot of people who cannot navigate the technology needed for digital identity verification, and they need an in-person option. Now, there are some people who can't do in-person and they're going to use digital. But I have clients who would walk for five hours to get somewhere in-person to do this. I've had people walk five hours to get to a hearing. And people will go to great lengths. And I wish they didn't have to do that. That shouldn't be the standard. But having that in-person option is really important for people navigating these systems and making sure that when somebody is cut off because of an identity issue, that they have a way to contest that. There has to be a process in which they have rights. They have constitutional rights here, but oftentimes they were ignored during this pandemic when it came to benefit cutoffs.
    And so we need to make sure that there are processes in addition to the ones that are allowed under state law with appeals and things like that, but other ways in which people can contest when their identities either been stolen or when they're accused of using a stolen identity. And the government is saying, Hey, you are not who you say you are, no more benefits for you.
Joe Mitchell:
Understood. So, Nina, I also would like to get your perspective on this and striking the balance between reducing burden and minimizing fraud.
Nina Olson:
So the IRS has been wrestling with identity theft on a massive scale since about 2004. And as the national taxpayer, advocate leading the taxpayer advocate service for years, identity theft and also what the IRS would call possible refund fraud in these refundable credits, were the vast majority of our cases, like 40% of our cases. And we really worked with the IRS to try to come up with procedures and create a dedicated unit so that the taxpayer didn't have to go through like five different places to basically prove their identity. It took until about 2014 until the IRS actually did that.
    It also created, once you had proven your identity, you could get a separate number from your Social Security Number, so that you could put that on your tax return. And when the IRS saw that number, no one else would know that number and your return would go through swimmingly, even if your Social Security Number was still out there being used by a theft, they weren't going to freeze your return. They'd freeze the thief's return. And that number is actually available to everyone. Now that was a recommendation we had for years, and the IRS has actually allowed people to do that. So that's a possible solution.
    But the other issue is with whether the idea of trying to do revenue protection, not letting dollars go out in a refundable credit program because you will never recoup them. The IRS has built filters and things like that to stop refunds going out. And what we have reported, or we reported when I was the national taxpayer advocate, is that those filters had very high false positive rates. At some point the identity theft filters had a 60% false positive rate and the refund fraud "filters", had an 80% false positive rate. And one filter had a 91% false positive rate.
    And I really had an understanding that, yes, you need to be very careful about this and stop things. But if you're going to stop a return that has basically contains, the refund is 25% of that family's gross income for the year. You better have staffing available that once the machine has stopped the return, there's a human being there to look at it and make a decision quickly, whether we really need to be concerned about this return, or we can put it back in the system to move on. And what was happening and is still happening, year after year, after year, are these returns are being frozen and they're not released for up six months later. And now in the pandemic, it could be a year later.
    And taxpayer that just generates more phone calls that nobody can answer and letters that nobody responds to, because you've got the machines doing the protection of revenue, but the real work which requires the human beings to look at it and make the judgments calls, do we need to stop this one really, is not being staffed and not being done. And then the individuals are experiencing the burden. And at some point they say, well, even though this child has been living with me and I'm entitled to all this stuff, I'm scared to death. I mean, they stop my return. What is the IRS going to do to me? And then they just stop applying for it, which undermines the whole policy goals of the program, which is something that Pam and Don Moynihan have written about how administrative burden can, whether it's deliberate, intentional or not, can undermine completely the policy goals of the program itself.
Joe Mitchell:
Yeah. Great. Well, that's a great segue to Pam. I know you have some perspectives on this too, in terms of kind of the striking that balance about burden and fraud.
Pam Herd:
Yeah. I think stepping back, I think bigger picture, the issue is not so much thinking about striking the balance, thinking about like, oh, we have to have more burden to have less fraud, as it is as you've really been listening to Julia and Nina talk, it's really about an administrative capacity problem. So I don't think we ended up with a lot of fraud in these programs because we had misaligned somehow the balance of... We had too little burden and so we had too much fraud. The problem is we had a lot of administrative systems that just weren't functional and allowed a lot of fraud to happen. Could you have prevented all of that if you made these programs nearly impossible to navigate? Yes, but then you wouldn't have met the primary goal of the policy, which was to deliver aid quickly in an emergency situation.
    So I think in terms of framing the problem. It's really important to step back and think about what we have here actually, are these huge administrative capacity issues. Because quite frankly, we don't see these same problems at the Social Security Administration when they're delivering retirement benefits. It's just as complicated in some way, but they've built an appropriate administrative structure to navigate it. And certainly Nina has talked about some of the weaknesses that the IRS, but she also laid out step by step these processes they went through, to kind of address some of the burden aspects while still managing and ensuring that we have less fraud. So I think that's a one big picture point. I'd sort of also generically add one specific part of this puzzle is, and this is talked about a lot I think in communities that care about these issues, is data sharing and much more effective data sharing across agencies.
    Now that's very complicated because of legal requirements and to some extent this requires legislative language when Congress passes things to require agencies to share information. But one way to manage a lot of these issues around burden is actually for agencies to share data with each other, to ensure both that you have the right people in terms of like, are these people actually eligible for this program? As well as not requiring and putting a lot of burden on those individuals. The burdens on the state instead. So individuals don't have to do much. We're behind the scenes kind of gathering all this data to make sure that someone is eligible to make sure that they're getting the right benefit, so on and so forth. I think those are kind of the bigger picture, really important issues.
Joe Mitchell:
Got it. That's really important perspectives. And Julia, I'd like to also turn it back to you. I know you have some additional perspectives on this.
Julia Simon-Mishel:
Yeah. I just really want to lift up what Pam just said about data sharing. Our state agencies and federal agencies are siloed, in many ways in the data and information that they hold. And while there are privacy concerns with kind of how we share that data, that really has to be reconsidered here. I was struck by what you just said about that number that was given to individuals. So there is a separate marker they have that would not be available on the dark web right now to all of these kind of criminal syndicates. But where else could we be using that marker?
    One thing when we're talking about solutions is that individuals need to be able to kind of clear the front door with one agency and that should allow them to have cleared that door with other agencies as well. We can't make people do identity verification with each and every program that they're trying to experience. There has to be a way to share that data to make things smoother for individuals. And I think, as Nina was saying, right now the burden is on the individual.
    When the government does hold a lot of this data, I often say my clients are some of the most surveyed individuals in this country. The government has so much data on them, and I know that there's a question about centralized forms and populating data. And there are some dangers with that because of the criminal syndicates. You want to be really careful about what information you automatically populate in applications when you're dealing with issues of identity fraud. But there is a lot out there that the very least could get benefits continued, keep people on programs. And so I do think we really need to look at how to simplify that using data sharing and looking, especially in the unemployment program at who controls data, because right now most of the data is controlled by states and that limits the federal government's ability to oversee these programs. And as Pam said, when legislation has passed, we have to consider that we have to think about what goes into the statute to allow these programs to be more accessible, but also to allow us to minimize burden for individuals.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. So there was a question around the whole notion of a single integrated benefits enrollment form. There was also a question around that you to utilize all the data, the reliance on credit data and the extent to which that has shut eligible beneficiaries out of major pandemic relief program. So any of my panels, I just throw that open to you all, the single integrated benefits, enrollment form idea, the credit data, data sharing, those seem to be coming up a lot in our conversations and in the chat.
Nina Olson:
So I would like to talk a little bit about the data sharing, but to pick up on Julia, I think it's really important what she just pointed out about the IP pin. If you're going to go through the process with the IRS and it's a very intensive process to authenticate your identity where you've been a victim of identity theft or involved in some kind of leak to get the IP pin, this Identity Protection Personal Identification Number, it seems to me it would be a really good solution to make that available through other agencies so that other agencies could also rely on that. And I think that's a really good takeaway from this conversation.
    I'm going to be a bit of a wet blanket on data sharing, not just because I come from a tax background and the IRS has the mother load of personal data on people, but also because I've been working with many other countries around the world where tax data has been used for other benefit programs to identify fraud in which there have been, for example, in the Netherlands, it has been found that it was by the courts, that it was a violation of the European convention of human rights, because of the way it was used.
    And this is a fundamental point about data, is that you have to be very careful about using data that is gathered for one purpose and applying it for another purpose. And so data that is gathered to determine what your income is, may not really be appropriate for determining whether there's fraud in value added tax or in benefits for a childcare supplement. And so I think as we get starry-eyed about data, we really need to be cautious about that. I don't want to have, like the Netherlands had, an entire government have to resign because of the scandal that occurred with that program. So I just put that caution out there. It's not to say no, but it's to say, really be careful about how we're doing them. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about that, more than happy to talk about that at another time.
Joe Mitchell:
Well, that's very-
Pam Herd:
No, I just want to step in and sort of agree with this point more generically about... Any one of these kinds of ways that we think about reducing and simplifying burden, can be turned around and used to worsen it, like there's a sort of politics of this. And the Danish case is interesting for two reasons, one, because it is a good example where they took this sort of micro data, generated these predictive models and targeted basically immigrant groups in particular. It's also an interesting model though, that in fact they enacted a really high price on these people for doing it. They did it and then an entire government had to resign. And I can point to so many examples of similar kinds of things that happen in the U.S. that we just sort of like no one even knows about.
    So it was sort of an extraordinary. We have a case study about it in our class in part, because of this sort of disconnect between how the Danish government was penalized for that kind of behavior versus how we just allow people to do this all the time in the U.S. But I would say, to be clear about this, this is already going on. So I'm not suggesting something that we're not doing. There is actually data sharing already. That's mandated by statute. So for example, around when you have joint eligibility programs, like if you're eligible for SSI, you're automatically eligible for Medicaid. There's like a pass through it, varies a little bit across states. Those agencies have to share information for that to happen, for example. So we already kind of do this. It's about doing that more frequently and as Nina points out, absolutely doing it carefully and not using these methods as a means to kind of further add burden or further reduce access to programs for people.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Well, thank you all. So we are in the last five minutes, and so I was going to ask you kind of your recommendations for the future. And one of our questions in the chat was, if there is one policy you could change or implement, what would it be? So maybe that'll be the way I'll ask you about your recommendations. And if there's just one thing, what would that one thing be? Pam, maybe I'll start with you.
Pam Herd:
Okay. So actually, what I would say is if I think about across social welfare programs, the thing that I would want to eliminate is our asset tests. So I know that people think about this as a policy design feature, but it's really an implementation problem in practice. Very few people where we have asset requirements in place for programs, very few people actually who have to meet the income thresholds somehow have greater assets than those that then you would think based on the income thresholds, but it produces enormous amounts of administrative burdens, both for beneficiaries, but also for the agencies who administer those programs. And so they're costly, they're tremendously reduced access to programs and they dramatically kind of just undermine programmatic goals.
Joe Mitchell:
Okay. Asset qualifications. Okay. Nina.
Nina Olson:
So I bring my tax controversy lawyer hat to this, and I think for me, it really is dispute resolution mechanisms. No matter how well you design a program, they're going to be things that happen. You're going to get wrong results. People are going to get confused, whatever. And so those dispute resolution mechanisms not only have to comport with constitutional requirements, but have to be accessible to people and design for people who may be representing themselves or may have assistance, but need to not be chilled and afraid of those resolution mechanisms.
    And the other thing is that they have to be fairly immediate, that the relief has to be not only accessible, but fairly immediate. Maybe you have a case that will eventually work through several levels of dispute resolution, but the initial dispute resolution might be able to get to the right answer but it's going to take six months to get to that right answer. And real economic harm is happening to people in that six months. And so that would be something that I would focus on a lot.
Joe Mitchell:
So quick dispute resolution. Julia, what about you?
Julia Simon-Mishel:
Yeah. And let me just add for what Nina just said, not only quick dispute resolution, but acknowledgement that a dispute has been filed. I cannot tell you how many people feel like they have been screaming into a black hole trying to file a report, different issues of fraud, identity theft barriers. And there's not even a confirmation that this complaint, this forum was submitted and that I will just say creates more administrative burden for agencies because you know what people do, they submit it 20 more times when you don't confirm with them that it was received. If we're talking about kind of overall policy solutions, I think a lot of this comes back to a no wrong door approach. When you have multiple different programs across the federal and state governments, especially if they're state programs that are... Sorry, federal programs administered by the states.
    We have to figure out ways for people to have simplified entryways. And we have to be very careful about accusing people of fraud or of being misleading, when they just apply to everything they're told they might be eligible for. And the government chooses whether or not to pay them. A lot of this does come back to the kind of data sharing issue. And so I do think kind of policy wise looking into that going forward, I think is a real key, but as Nina pointed out, and as I deal as a legal aid lawyer, and so many deals with low income populations, guardrails are the priority here. What guardrails do you put on any sort of data sharing? How can it be used? When can it be used and how can people dispute its use? Or even dispute its accuracy if need be.
    And so I do think that is one of the major solutions going forward, but we have to really look at how we're doing it and how we're protecting people. Because I think as both Nina and Pam said, things like this can easily be turned on their head when given to the wrong individuals. And it's really important to put protections in place that stick around regardless of who is in charge of what program.
Joe Mitchell:
Great. Well, Julia, Pam, Nina, I cannot thank you enough for being here today. I think it's been a fascinating conversation. I really appreciate the opportunity to understand overall what's going on, talk more about people's experiences and both the good and the bad, and also getting your take on the recommendations for moving forward.
    And also wanted to thank our audience. We really appreciate you being with us today, and hopefully you have found this to be a useful conversation. And thanks also as always to our PRAC colleagues for working with us on this. This would not be possible without you all. So wanted to thank everybody, hope that you have a good rest of your day and can participate in future conversations.

Page last modified: 07/06/2022
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