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Easing Access to the Safety Net, and Why We Need to Do It Now

The economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic is making benefit programs more important than ever. It's critical to get information to people who need it and simplify application processes.

Receiving government assistance in Ramsey County, Minn.
Receiving government assistance in Ramsey County, Minn.
David Kidd/e.Republic
I'm not technically unemployed, but my hours have been cut to zero. Can I still apply for unemployment benefits?

I just lost my job and my health insurance. Can I apply for Medicaid?

These are among the questions that workers whose livelihoods have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic are asking. As the pandemic reverberates throughout the U.S. economy, many more will be asking the same questions. In light of the $2 trillion economic rescue plan, now is the time for policymakers to break down the barriers to accessing critically needed safety net programs.

But confusion about eligibility, along with lack of awareness, complex program rules and complicated applications prevent many eligible individuals from accessing programs such as unemployment insurance, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There's no doubt that the need is there, as was demonstrated by the record-breaking spike in unemployment compensation claims reported last week. More than ever, we need to make sure people can access and receive these benefits.

Here are two steps that state, local and federal policymakers should take now to ensure that social safety net programs reach as many of those who need them as possible:

Provide relevant program information and assistance to those who may be eligible for benefits. While SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) provides benefits to more than 35 million individuals, each year millions of eligible households do not enroll and miss out on assistance that can help address food insecurity. Partnering with Benefits Data Trust, we conducted a randomized evaluation that found that sending eligible households informational mailings nearly doubled SNAP enrollment, while combining these informational mailings with application assistance tripled enrollment. Other randomized evaluations have found positive impacts of providing information and application assistance in other settings. For example, non-filers were more likely to file their taxes after receiving information from the IRS, and providing application assistance and information increased Free Application for Federal Student Aid submissions and college enrollment among high-schoolers.

How the information is presented will also affect how many people are able to access these social safety net programs. Each year, for example, more than 20 percent of eligible individuals fail to claim the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit that has lifted millions of families out of poverty. Researchers Saurabh Bhargava and Day Manoli found that repeated mailings with simple, highly relevant information improved taxpayers' likelihood of claiming benefits. Such low-cost, behaviorally informed "nudges" have also increased take-up of Medicaid and other insurance programs. More broadly, text-message reminders have been shown to work in a number of spheres, from reducing failure-to-appear rates in court to increasing savings rates.

In the coming weeks, many individuals experiencing job furloughs may be unaware that they are eligible for unemployment insurance, which can be one of the surest ways of assisting people who lose their jobs or experience substantial reductions in work hours. Similarly, many individuals will lose their job-based health insurance and may be unaware that they may be eligible for Medicaid or to have their entire health insurance premiums covered on Affordable Care Act marketplace plans. Increasing awareness of these programs by providing targeted information, through direct mailings as well as social media, will be very important.

Simplify the application process. In another experiment, Manoli and Bhargava found that simplifying forms and clarifying eligibility criteria increased take-up of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Those steps have additional advantages: With increasing numbers of people trying to obtain benefits, government agencies are already being overstretched by the flood of inquiries. Simplifying application procedures will not only help individuals access benefits but also can help lighten the load for government agencies during this time of crisis.

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, Disaster Relief Medicaid (DRM) provided coverage for the thousands of uninsured New Yorkers who needed medical attention. A simple one-page application could be filled out at any point of care. Eligibility, which was decided on the spot, was relaxed to broaden coverage. DRM coverage lasted four months, and participants were able to transition to regular Medicaid if they qualified. This type of simplified application process can decrease the administrative burden on government agencies and allow more people to access coverage. Many state governments are already making it easier to access benefits, and others should be ready to do the same.

The rapid economic stimulus of $2 trillion enacted by Congress that expands social insurance programs will play a major role in mitigating some of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for low-income families and individuals who lose their jobs. But expansion of these programs alone is not sufficient. Proactively disseminating relevant information about eligibility and simplifying application processes are among evidence-based policies that policymakers should implement now to ensure that individuals are able to access these critical benefits.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

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