Americans need help — clear the sludge that gets in the way

In the 12th month of the coronavirus pandemic, millions are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families. The need for government assistance appears greater than ever. But even new funding and clear policy directions may not be enough to address these challenges. There is also a pressing need to ensure federal machinery is cleared of the ‘sludge’ that makes it harder for people and businesses to get the help they need. 

Behavioral scientists use sludge to describe unjustified frictions that make it more difficult to access services and opportunities. Common examples of sludge are poorly designed forms and repetitive demands, which result in 11.6 billion hours of paperwork from the federal government annually. 

These administrative burdens prevent eligible individuals from receiving vital government benefits and services like school meals or financial assistance for college. Take the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, which provides benefits to close to 44 million low-income Americans. Participants need to complete detailed applications, submit verification documents, complete an interview and have to recertify every six to 12 months or every 24 months, depending on household circumstances. The sludge involved leaves many unjustly terminated. In Michigan, half of participants who left the program in their first year were actually still eligible. 

The most obvious harm from sludge is that it delays or denies essential support — leaving families unable to pay rent or get health care. But that’s not all. Sludge means people need to pay for transportation to a government office or to print forms. Sludge wastes valuable time that could have gone to working, caring for family, or other important activities. Sludge reduces our ‘cognitive bandwidth’, leaving us less able to address other pressing problems. Sludge also creates psychological harm, including frustration, anxiety, stress and stigma.

These costs fall disproportionately on our most disadvantaged populations — those who are older, on low incomes, from racial or ethnic minorities, or have a disability. And people suffering from disadvantage already have a high cognitive burden because they make many difficult tradeoffs to navigate their daily lives. For example, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native adults are about 60 percent more likely to feel that “everything is an effort all or most of the time.” In other words, the people who most need to be freed from sludge are hit hardest by it.  

Sludge can be removed, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated. And this can often be done through administrative authority and waivers. 

The Internal Revenue Service eliminated its original requirement for individuals to file income tax returns in order to receive payments under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This saved 15 million Social Security recipients with low incomes, who are normally exempt, from having to file returns. The Food and Nutrition Service has granted waivers that allow individuals to enroll or re-enroll in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children over the phone instead of in-person.

So how can we build on this progress? Government agencies could start by conducting “sludge audits” that document the types of burdens and true costs required to access government benefits and services. For example, President Biden issued an executive order requiring the examination of “policies or practices that may present unnecessary barriers to individuals and families attempting to access Medicaid or ACA coverage.”

The next step is to lighten the sludge load. First, we can reduce cognitive burdens by making it easier to understand how to enroll in and use government programs. For example, when choosing health care plans, many older Americans fail to select the financially optimal Medicare plan as they struggle through the sludge of complex information. To reduce this burden, the government could provide additional online tools that simplify information about plan features (e.g., deductibles, supplemental plans), compare frequently used plan benefits and customize recommendations.

Second, we can lessen the practical effort required to access services — reducing the number of steps, copies required or time spent waiting in line or on hold. For example, agencies could leverage their administrative records or secure connections with other agencies’ databases to pre-populate enrollment forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or automatically enroll eligible individuals in the Earned Income Tax Credit.  

Sludge hurts the people who the government should help the most. Reducing sludge may require unglamorous work and additional funding in the short term, but the payoffs will be large. By applying behavioral science to streamline programs and policies, policymakers can save time, save money, improve well-being and demonstrate that government works. We urge policymakers to clear the sludge.

Laura Zatz, ScD, MPH is a senior advisor at the Behavioral Insights Team US, a consultancy corporation that translates behavioral science into policy and practice on behalf of its clients.  Lindsay Moore, MPP is a principal advisor and Michael Hallsworth, PhD is managing director at the Behavioral Insights Team US. Behavioral Insights Team US is a wholly owned subsidiary of Behavioural Insights Ltd, which is jointly owned by its employees, the innovation charity Nesta and the UK Cabinet Office.

Tags Child poverty Families First Coronavirus Response Act Federal assistance in the United States Joe Biden Medicaid Welfare WIC

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