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Administrative burden as a mechanism of inequality
New lessons from research
The following is an excerpt from Introduction: Administrative Burden as a Mechanism of Inequality in Policy Implementation, which opens a, interdisciplinary two-volume symposium featuring new research on administrative burdens in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. You can find links to each article at the bottom of this post. All articles are open access and free to download. Read, use, and share!
The gap between people’s needs and the policies that are supposed to provide for them is filled with administrative burdens. Administrative burdens are rooted in laws, organizational rules, and everyday implementation practices. Burdens are a barrier to limit access to everything from formal citizenship to voting rights to the resources required to enjoy social rights, such as education, housing, and health care. Burdens also emerge in the state use of coercive power in contexts such as the criminal legal system, or child protective services. Across these and other venues, burdens tend to fall more heavily on more marginalized groups, undermining their claim to citizenship rights. Further, burdens are often not just a result of inattention or lack of capacity, but also the product of deliberate design.
If burdens are so important, why have they historically received relatively little attention? After all, they are hardly an unfamiliar topic. Ask anyone about their interactions with government, and chances are you will get an earful about a seemingly Kafka-esque experience that they or a family member has faced trying to access vitally important social rights such as health care, income support, unemployment, and food assistance, or a fundamental political right, such as voting (Lowrey 2021).
Administrative burdens have the odd combination of being both grindingly familiar to us as individuals, and largely unattended as a matter of policy analysis, design, and practice. They are a widely observed fact of life, but not a widely used conceptual tool to analyze life. One explanation for this failing is the fragmented discourse around them, siloed both across and within academic disciplines and policy areas. The economist and sociologist uncovering burdens in a social welfare program are often not talking to each other. Similarly, the policy analyst thinking about hassles in education does not share their insights with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) expert. In large part, this is because they do not conceive as burdens as a single analytical concept but are more apt to think of them as specific to a policy domain or area of study. Rather than a general toolbox for reducing burdens, we are left instead with lots of little toolboxes, bereft of enough instruments to comprehensively address the problem.
There is power in legibility and coherence. Naming something allows us to see it more clearly. It is difficult to accumulate knowledge when researchers use different terms and miss entire bodies of research. Framing something allows us to understand its consequences and to consider how to address it. These basic points are true for different but related domains: social science, politics, and policymaking. Table 1 summarizes the key insights we draw from the emerging body of research on administrative burden, four of which are described below.
BURDENS FACILITATE SOCIAL CONTROL
The primary focus of administrative burden research thus far has been on limiting access in rights-granting venues, such as political rights or access to benefits. However, burdens also matter as a method of social control in rights-depriving venues, that is, citizen-state interactions in which people have involuntary contact with coercive state institutions (Edwards et al. 2023; Brown 2023). An obvious example is the criminal legal system. For example, Black Americans express a stronger sense of fear about interacting with the police (Pickett, Graham, and Cullen 2021), even as the police represent the more direct and present face of government for many Blacks (Soss and Weaver 2017). Frank Edwards and his colleagues (2023) point to child protective services as another such venue, where administrative burdens are a key component of contemporary punitive and racialized poverty governance. Another example is immigration, where administrative burdens have been weaponized with the goal of creating fear among both undocumented immigrants, and those seeking legal refugee status (Yu 2023).
The role of burdens in rights-restricting domains is less well understood. It is reasonable to assume that given the stakes involved—loss of liberty, familial rights, legal status—the consequences of burdens in such venues may be greater, reflected in more intense psychological costs such as fear or despair. Burdens can both lock people out of desired benefits and lock them into unwanted long-term involvement with punitive state organizations.
One way burdens facilitate social control function is via entry into and exit from different administrative categories. In some cases, such as establishing disability, burden limits access to desired categories that provide additional income supports, help, or relaxation of standard administrative demands such as work requirements (Sommers et al. 2020). In others, however, burdens make it difficult to escape from undesired categories, such as deficient parent, itself a psychologically degrading identity the parent has to both accept and document that they have graduated from in order to exit the system (Edwards et al. 2023,).
THE EFFECTS OF BURDENS ACCUMULATE OVER TIME
Although the categories of learning, compliance, and psychological costs help unpack the frictions that people face in particular encounters or programs, this diagnostic process should not obscure the broader picture of burdens as a cumulative experience. In short, some people are systematically more likely to be exposed to burdens. It is important to remain attentive to the accumulation of burdensome experiences across multiple programs or domains, both rights-granting, such as applying for benefits, and rights-depriving, such as when social services take a child away from a parent (Edwards et al. 2023, Sackett and Lareau 2023). In the former, someone is a claimant, whereas in the latter someone is the subject of the state, but across these domains the costs accumulate. Families seeking help from the safety net are negotiating with multiple institutions. Poorer families seeking help encounter burdens in WIC, childcare supports, public housing, SNAP, and Medicaid.
Even after someone has overcome enrollment burdens to access a benefit, they continue to face redemption costs in using those benefits, especially for voucher-based benefits such as housing supports (DeLuca, Katz, and Oppenheimer 2023) and WIC (Barnes 2021). Negative experiences in using benefits may cause people to exit programs (Barnes, Halpern-Meekin, and Hoiting 2023). The exit, or “churn” of eligible applicants at points of renewal is another juncture where those who have shown a capacity to overcome a set of burdens in the past are no longer willing or able to do so.
For many, the experience of the state is the experience of burdens. People who rely on social welfare programs, from food assistance to the EITC, simply spend more of their lives navigating complicated bureaucracies to meet their basic needs than do those with more resources (Land 2018). Thus, the accumulation of burdens will reinforce inequality to the degree that people systematically experience the same sort of burdens in the administrative venues they are assigned. Marginalized groups may look at the history of their experience with the state, and view their interactions through that lens. Using the American Time Use Survey, Stephen Holt and Katie Vinopal (2023) find that low-income people are 3 percentage points more likely to spend part of their day waiting for services, and the duration of their waits are, on average, twelve minutes longer. These differences are not based only on income: high-income Black people experience the same wait times as low-income groups.
THE FEDERATED AND FRAGMENTED NATURE OF U.S. POLICY IMPLEMENTATION ENHANCES BURDENS
A primary lesson emerging from new scholarship on administrative burden is the identification of federalism as a key source of burden. Part of the issue is the basic reality that more players means more veto points and more opportunities to add burdens. Federalism also means locating service delivery in venues that are subject to less direct attention from the public. For example, federal policies that impose work requirements or new hassles in legislation or executive order are more apt to draw attention and pushback than equivalent changes at the state level.
Programs that involve federal, state, and local control tend to be more complicated and burdensome, and consequently more heavily reinforce race, gender, and class inequality, than those solely controlled by the federal government (Michener 2018). In short, federalism plays a large role in shaping the level of burden in U.S. social welfare programs (Michener 2018; Mettler 2011). For example, although both Social Security and unemployment insurance evolved out of the 1935 Social Security Act and are social insurance programs, control of UI is shared between federal and state governments. The Social Security retirement program is the least burdensome U.S. social program, especially when taking its scope and impact into account. Take-up is nearly 100 percent and users do not need to keep track of, or document, their lifetime earnings. Benefits can be claimed in a matter of minutes, either online or via one of thousands of field offices around the country.
Unemployment insurance is a very different story. Its dysfunction during the pandemic was not just the result of an unusual surge in applications. Even in “normal” times, only about three-quarters of those eligible for unemployment insurance actually receive benefits, with many jobless people deemed ineligible. The fraction of unemployed people receiving benefits ranges from about 10 percent in North Carolina to 57 percent in New Jersey (U.S. Department of Labor 2022). Notably, differences across racial groups are large. Using data through 2015, Elira Kuka and Bryan Stuart (2022) find that only 42 percent of eligible Black individuals receive UI relative to 55 percent of eligible White individuals and 20 percent of the racial gap is accounted for by Black individual’s greater residence in the South. More generally, states with higher proportions of Black workers also tend to have less generous unemployment insurance benefits, with learning costs contributing to low take-up of benefits across all racial groups (Gould-Werth and Shaefer 2012).
Challenges accessing UI during the pandemic reflect prior policy choices made, especially after the Great Recession, to narrow eligibility and broaden burdens (Badger and Parlapiano 2020). The cumulative effect was to reduce the overall fraction of unemployed workers receiving benefits from around 31 percent between 2004 and 2007 to 23 percent between 2012 and 2016 (Vroman 2018). Compliance costs played a key role in this decrease. States such as Florida (Fineout and Caputo 2020) and North Carolina (Lee 2020) confounded the application process with burdens to reduce unemployment insurance spending. Across states, new programs to facilitate employment, such as job counseling and required documentation of job-seeking activities, led to people losing unemployment insurance for failing to meet administrative requirements, rather than to increased employment (Vroman 2018).
Federalism is a contributing factor to another source of burdens, which we label here as administrative fragmentation: the multiplicity of administrative actors that an individual must interact with to complete a task. It seems axiomatic that administrative costs increase when a person has to negotiate with multiple organizations. Most obviously, learning costs increase because someone must be aware of more than one relevant organization and understand how to engage with multiple sets of rules. Compliance costs also increase as the person commutes between organizations, and has to provide documentation multiple times to different actors. The frustrations of being shuffled back and forth also mount.
Fragmentation can occur both within and across policy domains. The U.S. health-care system is a very fragmented domain, with some exceptions, such as the Veterans Health Administration, which operates more like a national health system for its users. Adam Goldstein and his colleagues (2023) point to the deleterious effects of fragmentation in student loan programs. Income-driven repayment programs benefit most borrowers, but borrowers must master more than one such program with varying provisions and eligibility. The Department of Education relies on private loan service providers, and when loans are transferred from one servicer to another it can be calamitous for borrowers when basic information is not transferred. Borrowers often have to play the role of their own administrative representative, collecting administrative data, or coordinating organizational relationships between, for example, their bank and lender. Within the broader safety net, different programs may have different rules, definitions, and measurement about things like dependents or assets that make little sense to their users.
Federalism contributes to administrative fragmentation, but it is not the only source. A preference for marketized provision of public services, and a reliance on supportive nonprofits begets fragmentation. A person walking between organizations can get lost. Sackett and Lareau (2023) illustrate how refugees often find themselves tied up in institutional knots in part because they cannot resolve competing or contradictory demands from the multiple organizations they must negotiate with. In other words, it is easier for people to fall through the cracks when the cracks are gaps between organizations.
NUDGES ARE NOT ENOUGH TO REDUCE BURDENS; SOMETIMES HELP IS NEEDED
In some cases, informational nudges can reduce learning costs. Some processes are so complex that nudges are not enough: help is needed.
DeLuca and her colleagues (2023) document the role of Navigators in aiding people as they negotiate the housing vouchers, echoing previous findings on the role of health-care navigators or aid in FAFSA applications.
Hoynes, Maestas, and Strand (2022) show that using attorneys at the beginning of a Social Security Disability Income application substantially reduces the wait time for benefit receipt.
Pierce and Moulton (2023) show that reduction of burdens in a foreclosure prevention program increased take-up, and especially benefited female Black and older applicants, and those facing more complex documentation requirements.
Help is a salient solution when compliance costs are high or for hard-to-reach populations who sit on the margins of society, beyond the reach of standard administrative tools. Simply sending more information in such cases can be of limited value if people cannot act on that information.
Elizabeth Linos and her colleagues (2022) find that multiple messages failed to increase take-up for the EITC, suggesting that those not already accessing the benefit needed more direct help.
In their experiment to increase SNAP take-up among eligible older adults, Finkelstein and Notowidigdo (2019) find that adding a phone line for an enrollment specialist doubled the increase in SNAP take-up relative to a simple information treatment.
Ultimately, taking administrative burdens seriously means revisiting how policy is designed and how the administrative state functions. It invites the marriage of multiple skills, such as behavioral science, human-centered design, and deep policy knowledge. One example is the redesign of practices recruiting low-income students with high performance to college (Dynarski et al. 2021). An experiment at the University of Michigan provided personalized communication, which reduced both learning and psychological costs (feelings of uncertainty and inclusion) while activating support from the broader social network of families and college advisors and minimizing application hurdles. This multifaceted approach nearly doubled both applications and enrollments in the target population even without offering any new financial resources.
At a time when U.S. administrative capacity is characterized as being in decline, the administrative burden agenda offers insight into how investments in capacity could improve the quality of government. Such investments can ensure that the state, rather than individuals, bear the brunt of burdens in public programs.
You can read this entire piece, plus two volumes of new, original research on administrative burdens in a variety of policy domains for the price of free. Links below. Please share widely.
Part I. Medicaid
State Approaches to Simplify Medicaid Eligibility and Implications for Inequality of Infant Health Emily Rauscher and Ailish Burns
Replacing Medicaid with an Imperfect Substitute: Implications for Health Inequality Randall Q. Akee, Timothy J. Halliday, and Teresa Molina
Part II. College
Administrative Burden in Federal Student Loan Repayment, and Socially Stratified Access to Income-Driven Repayment Plans Adam Goldstein, Charlie Eaton, Amber Villalobos, Parijat Chakrabarti, Jeremy Cohen, and Katie Donnelly
Part III. Immigration
Institutional Entanglements: How Institutional Knots and Reverberating Consequences Burden Refugee Families Blair Sackett and Annette Lareau
Part IV. Child and Family Supports
“I Used to Get WIC . . . But Then I Stopped”: How WIC Participants Perceive the Value and Burdens of Maintaining Benefits Carolyn Barnes, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, and Jill Hoiting
Administrative Burdens and Economic Insecurity Among Black, Latino, and White Families Zachary Parolin, Christina J. Cross, and Rourke O’Brien
Part V. Disaster and Housing Relief
Administrative Burdens in Emergency Rental Assistance Programs Claudia Aiken, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Vincent Reina
Disastrous Burdens: Hurricane Katrina, Federal Housing Assistance, and Well-Being Ethan J. Raker and Tyler Woods
Part VI. Housing Supports
The Effects of Administrative Burden on Program Equity and Performance: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in a Foreclosure Prevention Program Stephanie Casey Pierce and Stephanie Moulton
“When Someone Cares About You, It’s Priceless”: Reducing Administrative Burdens and Boosting Housing Search Confidence to Increase Opportunity Moves for Voucher Holders Stefanie DeLuca, Lawrence F. Katz, and Sarah C. Oppenheimer
Part VII. Child Welfare
Administrative Burdens in Child Welfare Systems Frank Edwards, Kelley Fong, Victoria Copeland, Mical Raz, and Alan Dettlaff
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