Public Benefits Are So Tough To Navigate That People Don’t Use Them
Finding, determining eligibility for, and going through the application processes of multiple public benefits programs is time-consuming and burdensome. As Annie Lowrey concludes in The Atlantic, many people cannot afford the heavy “time tax” associated with signing up for these programs, some of which are intentionally designed to discourage enrollment. As a result, eligible families and individuals miss out on essential support. More than $65 billion in public benefits assistance goes unused annually in the United States, demonstrating that significant barriers still stand between those who need help and how to get it.
We can do better.
Recently, Connective published a blog post about how public benefits lead to an improved quality of life for those that use them. This month, we’re exploring the barriers to enrolling and staying enrolled in public benefits. Next time, we’ll do a deep data dive on specific numbers for Harris County and how to improve the benefits ecosystem using a collectively built Public Benefits Hub.
A lack of outreach to increase awareness of public benefits is a significant barrier to enrollment. Many people may not be aware of the programs and services they are eligible for, do not understand the application process, or assume they aren’t qualified based on immigration status. Additionally, those eligible for multiple benefits may face compounding barriers like different documentation requirements for each, language barriers, time burdens, and an overall lack of trust in the application process.
BARRIER: BENEFIT CLIFFS
Federal poverty guidelines determine public benefits eligibility (now an annual income of $30,000 for a family of four.) However, many individuals face a “benefits cliff.” They make too much money to receive the benefits but not enough to sustain themselves and their households. The rising cost of living, stagnant wages, and unstable job and housing markets are some factors that contribute to this. Income eligibility guidelines also go essentially unchanged as local economic conditions shift.
Redefining benefit income requirements can open access to help for those who don’t formally qualify but would benefit greatly from the assistance. In late 2022, Pennsylvania used broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) to expand SNAP benefits to approximately 420,000 newly eligible residents. We envision a nationwide policy change to adjust income guidelines regularly to reflect the everyday financial difficulties that low-income residents face.
BARRIER: INACCESSIBLE APPLICATIONS & RECERTIFICATION
Ineffective application systems and processes cause inconvenience and pose a significant barrier to people seeking benefits. In addition to the logistical challenges of navigating an online application process, many individuals lack access to the Internet, phone, or transportation to certification interviews. Reapplying for benefits can also be a burden, as administrative obstacles, time constraints, and a lack of coordination across programs make navigating the process difficult. These barriers can ultimately deter people from completing the application process, leaving them without the necessary support and assistance.
The stigma surrounding public benefits is rooted in the public perception that people who receive them are lazy and unmotivated. This stigma damages those who need help, as it can lead to feelings of shame and guilt and even prevent people from seeking assistance. In addition, the concept of “deservingness” — the belief that certain people deserve more help than others — creates a moral hierarchy and leads to judgment, discrimination, and stigmatization of those who receive public benefits.
One way to shift public perception away from deservingness and toward empathy is to highlight the success stories of those who have used public assistance to improve their lives. Real stories can create more meaningful and personal conversations around public policy and funding for assistance programs. Public communications and outreach can help reframe the conversation around using benefits, stress the importance of asking for help when needed, and promote public benefits as a necessary tool to increase economic stability.
Next time, we’ll explore unique Harris County data and which benefits are missing the largest eligible audience. How many dollars are left on the table each year? What are the biggest benefits gaps we need to bridge? We’ll also look at ways to improve the benefits ecosystem through Connective’s vision for a Public Benefits Hub and how we can co-create solutions with our partners to get help to the people who need it most.