The Biden Administration is Taking Administration Burdens Seriously - Part II
Health, rental assistance, student loan forgiveness and those pesky subscription cancellations
In a previous post I wrote about how the Biden administration is adopting a novel administrative philosophy that mixes a customer service focus, human-centered design, and a desire to reduce administrative burdens in the name of access and equity.
In addition to this governmentwide approach, policy wonks are rooting out and eliminating nuisance burdens in their specific domains. This post explores their efforts for two reasons. First, it gives us a sense of the tangible differences such changes can make to people’s lives. Second, it offers a preview of the benefits of focusing on administrative burdens across government.
Big takeaway: Across the federal government, there are new efforts to reduce administrative burdens in ways that help the public.
The Trump administration made a point of making public services harder to access. So the most obvious steps by the Biden administration is simply to reverse some of the damage the Trump administration created. In some cases, they have gone further.
Health care access
A basic philosophical difference between the two parties is the degree to which people should have access to public health insurance, and under what conditions. In a context where Republicans are unable to reverse Democratic eligibility expansions, this difference most often plays out on the terrain of how onerous they can make health care access.
Trump failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but did all he could to make it difficult for people to access public health insurance. This included defunding the Navigator program. Healthcare is a complex policy area where people often need help with enrollment. The Navigator program funded professionals who would help people sign up for health insurance. It reduced learning and compliance costs, and was especially helpful to to poorer individuals, minorities, immigrants and those who were more likely to be uninsured and faced more challenges with enrollment.
Trump slashed the program to $10M, down from $63 million in the last year of the Obama administration. Biden not just reversed the cuts, but raised funding to $80 million. This led to dramatic increases in state funding to help people negotiate the ACA. For example, there had been zero funding in 2020 for South Carolina and Utah, which increased to $1.2 million each. Florida went from $1.6 million to $14.4 million.
Biden also reversed a Trump administration policy adding work requirements to Medicaid. People disagree about the effectiveness of work requirements, but they do not make people healthier, which is the central goal of Medicaid. There is also increasing evidence that work requirements are more effective at limiting access to benefits rather than getting people to work.
Because Mediciad is an intergovernmental program, states need federal permission for changes like work requirements. The Biden administration has been reversing previously provided permissions, and withdrew Trump-era guidelines that encouraged such waivers.
Simplifying rental assistance
Congress set aside $46.5 billion for rental assistance as part of the federal pandemic relief packages. The aid was intended to be distributed by state and local governments. By August of 2021, just over 11% of those benefits had been distributed. Just 500,000 of 2.8 million applications resulted in payments, with 1.5 million waiting for approval. Over 60% of eligible renters never even applied for help.
The slow pace of distribution reflects poor policy design, where already overwhelmed state and local governments struggled to implement a new program that required them to verify eligibility, and renters did not know where to turn for help. The Trump administration also pushed for detailed reporting requirements, leaving tenants scrambling for documentation. At the local level, such burdens led to applicants dropping out of rental assistance programs.
The Biden administration has sped up the pace of distribution by relaxing documentation requirements. Gene Sperling, the White House official overseeing pandemic relief, pushed states to allow applicants to self-attest their financial status rather than require detailed documentation.
States and localities can still stymie rental assistance if they want, but if they actually prefer to move the money quickly, they now have the federal cover to do so. For example, California quickly quadrupled its pace of payments. Treasury data reflects both the delays and the gradual catch-up in getting the money out in recent months.
Student loan forgiveness
Many progressives want a mass student loan forgiveness. This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Instead, the Biden administration has focused on making a number of existing student loan forgiveness programs actually functional.
The headline success thus far is automatically providing loan forgiveness for an estimated 323,000 individuals with permanent disabilities, wiping away $5.8 billion in debt. To be clear, these individuals were already granted a right to loan forgiveness by Congress. But they struggled to access that right. For years, the Department of Education had required them to verify their disability status, a long and onerous process, even though many of them had already done so with another part of the federal government: Social Security.
Not unreasonably, an applicant for loan forgiveness might fail to understand why they had to jump through the same set of hoops twice. The administrative challenge was getting two parts of government - SSA and the Department of Education - to work together. This did not happen overnight. During the Obama administration, SSA shared their records with the Department of Education to identify individuals eligible for loan discharges. The Department of Education contacted them to let them know of their eligibility. But they still had to go through the process of documenting their status. The difference with the Biden process is that the loans were automatically discharged. Eligible applicants did not have to submit paperwork.
The Trump administration could have pursued a similar program – and did so for disabled veterans. But in general, the Trump record on student loan forgiveness was abysmal. At one point a judge chided Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for failing to give adequate consideration of student loan forgiveness applications, calling the process “disturbingly Kafkaesque.” DeVos rejected 95% of 220,000 applications, mostly with a perfunctory “insufficient evidence” response without specifying what evidence was needed. DeVos blocked efforts by other parts of the federal government that tried to fix student loan forgiveness programs. Trump appointees also nixed a website that would have made seeking loan forgiveness easier according to a whistleblower
The Biden administration has adopted a more incremental set of fixes to another student loan forgiveness program beset with problems: the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). A GAO study found that just 55 of 1.17 million applications for loan forgiveness through the program were successful.
As with other areas, the Biden administration sought public comment about how to reduce burdens in the PSLF. It received more than 48,000 responses! The frustration reflects that the program itself is poorly designed (blame Congress). Lots of borrowers believe incorrectly that they eligible, or don’t understand how stringent the requirements are. Not all student loans count. Not all jobs count – for example, working in a nonprofit hospital counts. A for-profit does not. Borrowers must keep up with repayments. So a lot of those applying are ineligible, reflecting the learning costs associated with a complex set of eligibility rules.
The Biden administration has laid out a set of changes. Some revisions expand eligibility. A temporary waiver is in effect that counts more types of loans and repayments. Military and federal employees eligible for benefits will be identified through data matching. Errors in previous applications will not be disqualifying, allowing applicants to resubmit claims. (If you think you are eligible and want to learn more about the new rules, go here for more detail).
The Biden administration will also produce a new federal rule to make the PSLF law easier to implement, simplifying rules around qualifying payments, and what counts as public service. This will take time, but moves the process forward. It will also make the program more intuitive to use.
By itself, the waiver made an estimated 22,000 borrowers eligible for an immediate loan discharge, worth $1.7 billion, and add about 20% additional qualifying payments to the average borrower. Already an estimated 30,000 borrowers have seen their debts erased per Cory Turner, who has provided consistently the best coverage of this topic for numerous years.
Thus far we’ve looked at public services, but Biden’s battle against burdens extends to private organizations. Private companies can be the most expert users of hassles as a means to turn a profit while making our lives miserable. Think of the times you tried to cancel a gym membership or newspaper subscription. Private companies made it easy to sign up, but almost impossible to get out, requiring you to call a number and endure long wait times rather than click a button. They are counting on you giving up out of frustration.
This sort of practice is by design, and is known as dark patterns. Biden’s FTC has declared such techniques to be illegal. Now it requires that “Marketers should provide cancellation mechanisms that are at least as easy to use as the method the consumer used to buy the product or service in the first place.”
I’m curious about how easy this will be to enforce, but large and reputable organizations cannot easily ignore such guidelines. And at least the next time you are trying to cancel a subscription, you can hint you will set the FTC on the offending party.
Telling the broader story
It’s a good bet that you haven’t heard of at least some of the examples I’ve described here, even though they represent what we often say we want from government: efforts to fix real problems and improve the quality of our lives. We are naturally more inclined to pay attention to stories of government failure. So it’s not clear if such efforts will result in any electoral payoff for Biden.
That’s a big problem: if we can’t create virtuous circles where good governance is rewarded, politicians will invest their time elsewhere.
I do think there is something of a messaging problem - and opportunity - for progressives. In general, government is not skilled at telling the world about its successes (and the media isn’t very receptive to such stories). Press releases in specific policy domains are not getting it done.
What needs to change? Three things:
More systemic identification of successes, with connection to the human interest element (we are more apt to remember stories of individuals rather than statistic) or consumer angle (the student loan changes did win some real coverage partly because people were interested to see if they would benefit).
Fitting those stories of individual policy fixes into a broader narrative of how government is being made to work for the little guy. This requires having an intuitive narrative, and a willingness to repeat it consistently.
Finding ways to amplify that message through the media and stakeholders. Such sources will be more trusted than government itself, and can articulate the stakes in terms of practical outcomes for the public.
Progressives can claim the mantle of sober and competent government, which reflects a real and sharp contrast of the dysfunction-by-design approach of Trump-style populists. Perhaps even more important, progressives can argue that after decades of regulatory energy devoted to reducing burdens for businesses, they are the ones looking to reduce burdens for the public. But they have to be able to tell that story more persuasively.
This sort of in-the-weeds attention to how administrative processes matter don’t get a lot of attention. So please consider subscribing to “Can We Still Govern?” if you have not done so already or share it with others.
Keep an eye out for a next step in that process: the introduction of an executive order to improve customer service.