Even as the government expanded aid programs, many people faced barriers to using them. That problem is now being addressed with apps and streamlined websites.
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WASHINGTON — In making his case that safety net programs should be easier to use, Jimmy Chen, a tech entrepreneur, recalled visiting a welfare office where people on food stamps endured long waits to submit routine paperwork.
They passed the time as people in lines do, staring at their phones — which had the potential to do the work online with greater convenience, accuracy and speed.
The image of aid-seekers wasting time with a solution literally in hand captures what critics call an overlooked challenge for people in poverty: Administrative burdens make benefits hard to obtain and tax the time and emotional resources of those who need help.
“Too much bureaucracy prevents people from getting the help they need,” said Mr. Chen, whose start-up, Propel, offers a free app that five million households now use to manage their food stamp benefits.
Barriers to aid are as old as aid itself, and they exist for reasons as varied as concerns about fraud, the bureaucratic tension between accuracy and speed, and hostility toward people in need. But the perils of red tape have drawn new attention since the coronavirus pandemic left millions of Americans seeking government help, many for the first time.
The government approved vast increases in spending but often struggled to deliver the assistance. While some programs reached most households quickly (stimulus checks), others buckled under soaring demand (unemployment benefits) or daunting complexity (emergency rental aid).
“The pandemic highlighted how difficult these programs can be to access,” said Pamela Herd, a professor at Georgetown and an author, with Donald P. Moynihan, of “Administrative Burden,” which argues that excessive bureaucracy deepens poverty and inequality.
The share of eligible people receiving benefits varies greatly by program: It is about 82 percent for food stamps, 78 percent for the earned-income tax credit and 24 percent for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or cash welfare, according to government estimates. That means billions of dollars go unclaimed.
On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order asking agencies to identify “systemic barriers in accessing benefits,” with the results due in January.
Shaped by forces as diverse as the tech revolution, welfare rights and behavioral psychology, the movement to create a more user-friendly safety net was underway before the pandemic underscored the perils of bureaucracy.
Code for America, a nonprofit group, spent years devising a portal that makes it easier for Californians to apply for food stamps. Civilla, a Detroit-based nonprofit, helped Michigan shrink its 42-page application by 60 percent.
In an age of ambitious social movements, the cry of civic tech — power to the portals — may seem obscure, but Mr. Chen, 34, says democratizing technology’s rewards is essential to social justice.
“For someone like me, a phone is like a magic wand,” he said. “If I want to call a cab, there’s an app; if I want to book a hotel, there’s an app; if I want to get a date, there’s an app. It’s just incredibly unfair that we don’t apply more of this sophisticated knowledge to the problems of lower-income Americans.”
Among those drawn to the app — recently renamed Providers, from Fresh EBT — is Kimberly Wilson, a single mother in Spindale, N.C., who has a 7-year-old son and cleans vacation rental homes. With her work interrupted by the pandemic, she turned to food stamps, which is also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
What Ms. Wilson said she likes most about the SNAP app is the ability to instantly check her balance, which she does almost daily. “It’s a comfort knowing I’m going to be able to feed my kid,” she said.
The app also explains the timing and amounts of her payments better than the state, she said, and it steered her to a broadband subsidy that saved $50 a month.
But the app’s rewards transcend the particulars, Ms. Wilson said: It leaves her feeling respected.
“It makes you feel like it’s normal to need help,” she said, which is especially welcome because she has relatives who post memes depicting people on SNAP as lazy and overfed. “It’s like somebody behind the screen is looking out for us. You feel like they care.”
Andrea Young, a Providers user in Charlotte, N.C., goes as far as to say the app “makes us feel like we’re Americans, too.”
With 42 million Americans receiving SNAP, many conservatives dispute the notion that aid is elusive. They see dependency as a greater concern than red tape and argue that administrative contact serves important goals, like deterring people who do not really need help or letting caseworkers encourage the jobless to find work.
“The system should be striving to help individuals achieve self-sufficiency through employment” rather than maximize benefits, said Jason Turner, who runs the Secretaries Innovation Group, which advises conservative states on aid policy. “When you pile benefit on top of benefit, you make it harder to break free.”
Poverty has long been linked to oppressive bureaucracy. “Little Dorrit,” the 1857 novel by Charles Dickens, lampoons the omnipotent “Department of Circumlocution,” whose stupefying procedures keep the heroine down. The 1975 documentary film “Welfare” offers a modern parallel with footage that one critic called “unbearable in its depictions of frustration and anger” among caseworkers and clients.
Sometimes barriers to aid are created deliberately. When Florida’s unemployment system proved unresponsive at the start of the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis told CBS Miami last year that his predecessor’s administration devised it to drive people away. “It was, ‘Let’s put as many kind of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, oh, the hell with it, I’m not going to do that,’” he said. (Mr. DeSantis and his predecessor, Rick Scott, are both Republicans.)
Other programs are hindered by inadequate staffing and technology simply because the poor people they serve lack political clout. Historically, administrative hurdles have been tools of racial discrimination. And federal oversight can instill caution because states risk greater penalties for aiding the ineligible than failing to help those who qualify.
To show that Michigan’s application was overly complex, Civilla essentially turned to theater, walking officials through an exhibit with fake clients and piped-in office sounds meant to trace an application’s bureaucratic journey. Working with the state, the company created a new application with 80 percent fewer words; the firm is now working in Missouri.
Michael Brennan, Civilla’s co-founder, emphasized that the Michigan work was bipartisan — it began under a Republican governor and continued under a Democrat — and saves time for the client and the state.
“Change is possible,” he said.
With its California portal, Code for America cut the time it took to apply for food stamps by three-quarters or more. The portal was optimized for mobile phones, which is how many poor people use the internet, and it offers chat functions in English, Spanish and Chinese. In counties with the technology, applications increased by 11 percent, while elsewhere the number fell slightly.
During the pandemic, Code for America built portals to help poor households claim stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit. The latter alone delivered nearly $400 million. David Newville, who oversaw the work, quoted a colleague to explain why web design matters: “Implementation is justice.”
As the son of struggling immigrants from China, Mr. Chen, the founder of Propel, understood hardship before he understood technology. “There wasn’t always enough to eat” in an otherwise happy Kansas City childhood, he said. (The family did not receive SNAP, though Mr. Chen does not know why.) He graduated from Stanford, worked at Facebook and left at 26 for a fellowship in New York, hoping to produce software for people in poverty.
Mr. Chen founded Propel in 2014 with $11,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, pitched about 60 investors without success and went two years without a salary. After planning to work on SNAP applications, he shifted to focus on people who were already enrolled and developed the balance display.
The existing technology did allow people to check their balances, but it did not work well on mobile phones, and a phone line required a 16-digit number. While studying how poor people shop, Mr. Chen saw them buy cheap items — often a banana — to check the balance on their receipts. It struck him as “disrespectful,” one more hassle that they did not need.
In tech terms, a balance display was no special feat, but reaching SNAP recipients was. Mr. Chen said the app’s users checked it on average 17 times a month. Ms. Young, 54, said she checked it more frequently than that.
“I check it all day, every day,” she said. “It makes me reassured, knowing that I’m going to have food.” Ms. Young, who gets by on a disability payment of about $800 a month after injuring her back, said she had run out of funds at the register; discarding items while others watched “makes you feel like you’re just pitiful.”
Ms. Wilson is so concerned about her balance that she keeps it in her head: It was $14.02 the other day.
While the app does not let users talk to each other, she said it still created a sense of belonging among those who felt stigmatized. “It just made me see there were a whole group of people out there in the same circumstance,” she said.
The app also tells people how much they have spent and where they spent it; offers recipes and budgeting tools; and provides news about other benefits. It generates revenue by selling ads, often to grocers offering discounts or employers offering jobs; Mr. Chen said the goal was to align the company’s financial interests with those of its users.
In early 2016, the app had a few thousand users. A year later, it had about 200,000. Propel landed investments from Andreessen Horowitz, a top venture capital firm, and the sports stars Kevin Durant and Serena Williams. Forbes estimated that the company was worth $100 million, a sum that Mr. Chen called “not far off.”
Partnering with a charity, Give Directly, during the pandemic, Propel distributed $180 million to randomly selected app users, offering them $1,000 each. It also moved into advocacy, adding a feature that lets users ask their members of Congress to extend the temporary child tax credit expansion.
The app now offers an account that can receive paychecks and other government benefits, prompted in part by the difficulties that the poorest households experienced in collecting stimulus checks, because they often lack stable bank accounts.
However they make ends meet, Mr. Chen said, poor people should know where they stand without having to buy a banana.
“We pay hundreds of billions of dollars to fund these programs,” he said. “Why not make them work well?”