As checks are distributed through the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, it’s important to remember the work is not finished until the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act’s beneficiaries — including the 25 million workers who were unemployed as a result of the coronavirus recession — actually receive their checks. While often under-emphasized or simply taken for granted, the process of getting federal resources to people is incredibly difficult in normal circumstances and amounts to a herculean lift for community service providers and city and state agencies during a pandemic.
This problem could be solved by simply allocating just 0.1 percent of all stimulus funds to states, municipalities and community organizations to reach those who need it the most.
While it’s unknown how many eligible Americans have not received their third stimulus check, prior stimulus packages offer worrying lessons. An estimated 17 percent of eligible households never received stimulus checks in 2008 and according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, approximately 12 million Americans who did not file a federal tax return in 2019 were unlikely to have received the $1,200 promised by the CARES Act.
This was often due to difficulties navigating the IRS process or because individuals were simply unaware that they were entitled to a stimulus check. The CARES Act represents a larger issue in the delivery of public benefits that, while exacerbated by the pandemic, is not limited to it. Whether in childcare, employment services, education or housing, federal and state resources sometimes fail to reach the people that stand to benefit from them the most because they are the hardest to reach. Stimulus aside, an estimated $60 billion in public benefits go unspent every year in the United States, according to Benefits Data Trust.
The success of public resource allocation initiatives, such as the stimulus afforded by the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, often depends on the effectiveness of state and local governments as well as community-based service providers. Allocating just 0.1 percent of all stimulus funds to states, municipalities and community organizations to identify and reach those eligible but not receiving benefits could dramatically help those most impacted by the pandemic.
These outreach efforts are particularly crucial during an economic shock or public health crisis. City and state agencies, along with non-profit service providers, are on the front lines of ensuring the most vulnerable families receive public assistance. This is especially true for workers without stable employment, home addresses, internet connectivity and other realities that hinder the automated deployment of stimulus checks.
An essential first step is investing in the technical infrastructure to improve access to resources and reduce the digital divide. Today, the internet has become the main avenue for communicating with the public, but existing federal websites that connect citizens with services are a generation behind the intuitive platforms used by the private sector for e-commerce. While connectivity issues dominate the conversation (and are a legitimate concern) advances in user interfaces (e.g. chat, text), AI-assistance, gamification and other technologies hold the potential to greatly improve the likelihood that vulnerable members of the public are able to apply for and receive benefits.
Finally, investments that blend and braid together existing public programs and resources would force multiple effects of stimulus spending. Today, benefits are siloed by agency or program, not by the holistic needs of end users. This makes as much sense as if Hertz rented cars on one website and rental insurance on another — with radically different processes for each. Addressing this issue will require both technical and administrative investments to de-silo critical services into convenient, intuitive portals that incentivize participation, rather than overwhelm or misdirect users. For example, Carnegie Mellon is working with the State of California on a project called Get CalFresh, which identifies first time recipients of SNAP food stamps and helps them apply for all other public benefits they are qualified for.
We should prioritize the deployment of public services to the same degree that we currently reserve for the legislative process. Be it for stimulus packages or the administration of other public assistance, allocating 0.1 percent of these funds to bolster the delivery of these services through community outreach, streamlined platforms and well-trained service providers will ensure that these resources reach the people they are intended to support.
Scott Andes is the executive director of the Block Center for Technology and Society at Carnegie Mellon University.