There’s no debate: America needs an equitable and resilient government

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During the presidential debates this fall, the moderators will have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. But there’s one question that we believe must be asked of both President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden at a moment when COVID-19 has triggered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression: What will they do to ensure that our nation provides equitable and resilient government services for all?

People in America are facing unprecedented hardship: America’s unemployment rate peaked at 14.7 percent and now stands at 8.4 percent; at least 13.6 million people are out of work; nearly 30 million people are claiming unemployment benefits; nearly a million people a week are making first-time jobless claims; more than 6 million people have signed up for federal food assistance (SNAP) benefits since the beginning of the crisis; 1 in 8 Americans, roughly 43 million people, now receive food assistance; and more Americans are going hungry during the coronavirus crisis.  

Families who don’t have enough to eat are at risk of being evicted and find it difficult — if not impossible — to find steady work. These challenges are especially heightened in communities of color. 

But instead of finding a social safety net ready to cushion the blow, they’ve found an outdated, confusing web of disconnected and depleted resources. At our darkest moment, the government shows up just in time to make things worse. First, just finding the right website through which to apply is a challenge. Then, the act of applying is complicated and difficult. And, if you make it all the way through, systems are delayed and so are services. 

Our social safety net is not working, but we do have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and remake the relationship between the government and its people, by building a more equitable and resilient government for all. This includes building a stronger safety net, righting the wrong of the criminal justice system and fostering communities dedicated to active civic engagement.

We know that there are systemic inequalities in our system that date back to our nation’s founding and before, and we must make a concerted effort to undo this legacy and build systems that are fair and inclusive. Government services should be simple, accessible and easy to use for all. This is how we move toward building equitable systems.

At Code for America, we believe that the biggest levers for improving people’s lives at scale are technology and government. We’ve put them together in a blueprint for government services that meets the needs of those who use it — these days, that’s most of us. 

This begins with putting people first. It’s critical to put people at the center of program design and build systems that work for everyone who needs them — both in person and online. In California, for instance, we’ve worked with the State to develop GetCalFresh, an easy-to-use application for federal food assistance benefits. It used to take applicants up to an hour to fill out an incredibly complex application for CalFresh, but we were able to streamline the process and get it down to just over 10 minutes. So when the COVID-19 crisis hit, our team was able to manage the flood of applications and help 800,000 people apply for food benefits. This was only possible because we had been working for years to make the application easy to use, digital and scalable.  

We must empower people by taking best practices and employing them across the country. This is how we make systemic change and improve people’s lives at scale. When it comes to federal tax returns, we know that Americans leave billions of dollars on the table because they don’t know they’re eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. So we built to help people get flexible cash support and maximize their federal tax returns, something even more critical during this crisis. Through the service, we provide free, trustworthy and accessible tax filing services in partnership with the IRS’s VITA program and non-profit partners across the nation. This year, we have helped 300,000 people navigate their tax filing options and directly helped 12,000 people file and claim an estimated $40 million in benefits. 

And third, when projects are launched, they aren’t finished. We must continually improve based on data-driven evidence. The same also can be said about policy. Start small and learn from deliberate experimentation to lead up to big changes. Government had to act quickly to stave off hunger during coronavirus school closures, and Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) was a way to quickly reach tens of millions of children with food assistance. We were pleased to work with state governments to achieve this goal. Looking to the future, we published a blog and policy memo about what worked and what could be done better next time. This type of learning allows us to adjust to the changing environments that we are all experiencing today.

Across the U.S. a movement is underway, powered by people committed to making government work better, with heart, for the people who need it. We are doing what we can, but there’s so much more to be done to truly build what is needed today. 

Faith in our government and our way of life is under assault. This moment calls for leadership, beginning at the presidential level. That’s why we believe leaders of both parties should be asked about this issue at the debates and we hope that they will commit to providing fairer, more equitable and more accessible services.

This would revolutionize how government works and go a long way to helping our neighbors and loved ones make it through the toughest of times. 

Amanda Renteria is the CEO of Code for America, a network of people making government work for the people, by the people, in the digital age. She served as national political director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the 2016 presidential election. You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @AmandaRenteria.

Tags Donald Trump EITC equitable capitalism Hillary Clinton Joe Biden low income households safety net SNAP benefits social safety net Unemployment Unemployment benefits

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