$100 Million to Cut the Time Tax

The nonprofit Code for America thinks it can unwind the administrative burdens that annoy and impoverish countless families.

Illustration of an army figurine on top of a calculator.
Getty ; The Atlantic

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

A mother in Louisiana is struggling to pay her bills and decides to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps. She starts to fill out the state’s 26-page, 8,350-word application. Page one instructs her to distinguish between SNAP and two other programs, the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program and the Kinship Care Subsidy Program, providing a schematic on what to fill out depending on which she wants to apply for. Page three lets her know that she needs to collect paperwork or data in up to 13 different categories—pharmacy printouts from the past three months, four pay stubs, baptismal certificates, proof of who lives in the home. Page six includes details on drug court and “alternatives to abortion”; page seven outlines the penalties if she misuses her benefits by, for example, spending them on a cruise ship or at a psychic. Page 15 asks her to detail her income from 24 different sources; page 16 asks about 14 different housing expenses; page 19 asks about 10 types of assets members of her family might own. The process is invasive, time-consuming, and confusing. She might never finish the application. If she does, she could be rejected for doing the paperwork wrong.

For the past decade, the San Francisco–based civic-technology nonprofit Code for America has endeavored to use digital tools to make these kinds of applications easier. It has studied applicants’ experiences and advised states on how to simplify their systems. It has built tools to clear a person’s criminal record, connect them with a volunteer tax preparer, and sign them up for valuable tax credits. Now, with $100 million in new donations, CFA is planning to double in size and scope, and “unlock” $30 billion in benefits for millions of families in 15 states.

This expansion is just one part of a much larger effort to unwind the administrative burdens that annoy and impoverish countless families and erode trust in the country’s institutions. A number of states are redoing their benefit applications using accessible-design principles, bills to slash red tape and simplify benefits administration are pending in Congress, and President Joe Biden is using executive orders to cut down on the “time tax” the government puts on low-income families. “There has been a lot more attention to this issue,” Pamela Herd, a sociologist at Georgetown University, told me. Biden’s executive orders, she noted, have been, “well, unprecedented seems strong, but nothing’s been done like that before.” Yet administrative kludge has been growing for decades.

Louisiana, which is hardly an outlier, offers a good example of how big the problem is. An estimated one in four recipients of SNAP in the state “churns” off and on the program in a given year due to paperwork troubles. Families that endure the arduous application process wait, on average, 32 months to receive a housing voucher. Louisiana runs one of the smallest cash-welfare programs in the country, and closes 5 to 10 percent of cases a month for procedural errors or in order to punish a recipient for noncompliance. One in five eligible households misses out on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is generally worth thousands of dollars, in many cases because the household does not file a tax return. In 2019, the state disenrolled 21,893 kids—kids!—from its public health-insurance program due to “failure to comply with procedures.” The result: more housing insecurity, more food insecurity, more poverty, and more hassle for Louisiana’s low-income families. This happens to low-income families in the other 49 states too.

“The bottom line is that people lose hope. We have to recognize that when people lose hope, they go to find something else to fill that hole,” Terri Ricks, the deputy secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, told me. “It’s too hard; I’m turning to drugs. It’s too hard; I’m contemplating suicide. People’s mental health deteriorates, and if they have children, that has other consequences.”

Even if safety-net programs are meant to help struggling people, in many cases they are not designed for struggling people to access. Filling out paperwork is harder when you’re homeless. Making it to an interview is harder if you’re hungry. Remembering appointments and deadlines is harder when you are trying to figure out how to get your car out of the impound lot.

But for decades, both Democrats and Republicans have made the safety net harder or more confusing to use. Republicans have wielded administrative burdens as a quiet way to throttle enrollment, as Herd shows in her book Administrative Burden, co-written with Donald Moynihan. Want to limit the size of the Medicaid program? Add a work requirement. Want to reduce the scope of your unemployment-insurance system? Add a bunch of “pointless roadblocks” to make it harder for people to receive payments, in the words of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. At the same time, Democrats have often turned to means tests to try to better target low-income families, while overlooking the growing difficulty of understanding, applying for, and holding on to benefits.

Application and reenrollment forms are full of stress-inducing queries. States require pointless face-to-face interviews and drug tests. Families need to reapply for benefits frequently. Add inadequate funding for social-service agencies and a broken procurement process, and you end up with a morass impossible for many to navigate—one that is in fact hardest for the worst-off to navigate, thus slapping a regressive filter on every progressive policy the government runs.

Code for America did not start off attempting to ameliorate these issues, exactly. The nonprofit soft-launched in 2009, asking, “What if interacting with your local government was more like using Facebook or Yelp?” It created fellowships for civic-minded Silicon Valley coders to take a break from Google or Apple to work on projects for municipal governments—a kind of Teach for America for city programs. (One early product launch: an Adopt-a-Hydrant site, organizing volunteers in Boston to dig out fire hydrants after snowstorms.)

In time, CFA came to focus on state and federal programs as well as cities, and the safety-net and criminal-justice system as well as municipal services. It hired a permanent staff of engineers and coders, and its projects became more ambitious: It built a site where millions of Californians sign up for SNAP, and last year launched an IRS-compliant website where 115,000 families filed for $440 million in child-tax-credit payments. The organization also came to take on more of a social-justice bent, building agile systems for equitable ends.

Its initiatives have gotten results. In Louisiana, for instance, CFA set up a system to text participants in safety-net programs to remind them when they needed to show up for interviews: “Your SNAP phone interview is on 5/1 at 9:30 AM. The call may come from an unlisted or out of state number, so please be sure to answer all calls.” The messages increased the share of applicants receiving SNAP from 67 percent to 81 percent, and bumped up the proportion of people successfully renewing their SNAP benefits, reenrolling in Medicaid, and maintaining welfare payments. “We really had to vet Code for America, because we didn’t know who they were and it just seemed out of the ordinary for a nonprofit organization to come and want to help with your systems for no money,” Ricks, the Louisiana benefits administrator, told me. “But that work had an amazing impact.”

The new, nine-figure investment will allow CFA to do long-range projects, rather than creating a “six-month pilot and hoping that it sticks,” Tracey Patterson, who works on safety-net programs at CFA, told me. Churn will be one initial area of focus, she said. “How can we make sure people aren’t getting dropped off of Medicaid or SNAP, because they didn’t realize that there was paperwork that they had to do, or it was too confusing or stressful at the time that it was received?”

That answer made me a little queasy: Isn’t reducing administrative complexity a task for the government, not a bunch of unelected do-gooders? Civil servants think about these questions all the time, Patterson responded. But CFA brings money and expertise that state offices might lack. The nonprofit can “act as the risk absorber,” she said, “to try something new, pilot it, test it out, and evaluate it—that’s quite difficult for governments to do in-house.”

Governments are reducing administrative burdens themselves by other means—a trend accelerated by the pandemic, which made getting people cash in hand an urgent priority. States suspended in-person interviews for SNAP. School districts gave everyone free lunch. Congress sent no-strings-attached stimulus checks to low-income households and cash payments to parents. Medicaid programs were barred from kicking anyone off. “Over the pandemic, we got these leniencies and it helped us to understand that maybe some of the rules that we have in play—we really don’t need them,” Ricks told me.

Coders might be able to build an app or a website to help participants get around those rules. But only Uncle Sam has the power to make CFA’s work obsolete, as it should be.