Addressing Administrative Burdens That Push People Away from Support: Carolyn Barnes, University of Chicago

‘Psychological costs like shame and stigma have always been a feature of assistance programs. You are scrutinized as to why you need assistance, and that scrutiny is a cost of receiving benefits.’ 

Carolyn Barnes, associate professor at the University of Chicago and author of State of Empowerment: Low Income Families and the New Welfare State, explores the social and political implications of social policy on low-income people and has interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences with the public benefits system, including workers and people applying for and receiving benefits.

Here, Carolyn traces the connections between Southern opposition to welfare benefits for Black families and the punitive everyday culture of benefits assistance today—and what she’s learned from WIC recipients, who tend to have a better experience.  

Q: How has the history of public benefit programs shaped the safety net we have today?

A: The rural South played a huge role in developing the contemporary welfare state, especially as the South was shifting away from tenant farming and domestic servitude towards mechanization and farming, and especially during the Jim Crow South era. If you look at welfare histories written in the 70s, 80s and 90s, you get a clear narrative of how the South opposed expansive welfare benefits and advocated for fragmented policy implementation for the purposes of maintaining control over the local political economy.

White, landed elites were really concerned that if we gave Black folks benefits (like food stamps, or cash assistance through AFDC), it would disrupt the local political economy. The thought was, “I can’t give surplus food to a Black family because they won’t go to the white grocer, who’s connected to these influential families,” or, “I can’t give cash assistance to that Black woman, because she won’t be the domestic for my neighbor.” 

Nationwide, today’s interaction between the welfare state, policy implementation and the local political economy is slightly different but has similar undertones. In many ways, these programs have been designed to push people away rather than to support people in meeting their basic needs. And today, we still see that benefits levels are the lowest in the Southeast and requirements to get on the program are the highest. The welfare state has been used to maintain a social, then racial, order. It’s somewhat maintaining the same purpose in the present day.

Q: How can assistance programs be designed to encourage or discourage people from getting help?

A: There’s an assumption that all public benefit programs are the same—a monolith of bad experiences. What I’ve learned is that people experience them very differently. Many of them are administered by completely different federal agencies, and they’re subject to different rules. 

TANF cash assistance is the least utilized assistance program because it was dismantled through welfare reform. The policy was structured so that states were incentivized to reduce caseload significantly. (Cutting caseloads earns states “caseload reduction credits” that help states cut costs.) These reforms were tied to a whole host of loaded, racist narratives around deservingness and a need to monitor fraud. So states direct TANF funds away from cash assistance and funnel it to programs like childcare and job training and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). 

That means that most of the safety net since welfare reform targets low-income working families, not those temporarily unable to work. So the safety net is not a substitute for work, it’s a giant work support. 

WIC, on the other hand, has a novel model of service delivery, and other programs could learn lessons in policy design from WIC. The money—the administrative funds for the agency—depends on caseload. If your caseload drops, the state loses money.

If the worker views the beneficiary as a source of professional success, the power shifts from the worker to the beneficiary—from, ‘You need me to survive,’ to ‘I need you to be successful,’ WIC’s policy design encourages meeting families’ needs. 

If the SNAP program (food stamps) had a design that encouraged providing services to food insecure families, that would shift things up. The onus would be on the SNAP worker to make it as easy as possible for families to access the benefits. We would see SNAP actually eliminating hunger and food insecurity.

Q: How does this program design affect families’ everyday experiences seeking assistance? 

A: First, there’s the administrative burdens—the challenges that people face when they’re trying to apply for and maintain access to benefit programs. “Learning costs” are the challenges of learning that a program exists, that you might be eligible and how to access it. “Compliance costs” are the nuts and bolts of the application and eligibility process. “Psychological costs” are the stress and the stigma of doing all of that. I developed a fourth category, “redemption costs,” which describes the challenges you face when havinghave to go use the benefit, like finding a landlord, to take a housing voucher. 

Psychological costs like shame and stigma have always been a feature of assistance programs. You are scrutinized as to why you need assistance, and that scrutiny is a cost of receiving benefits. 

A lot of research has demonstrated that these costs disproportionately affect folks that have disabilities, folks that are racially marginalized. 

Second, because we have designed a lot of our safety net programs to push people away, positive or personal interactions are not incentivized. The incentives are about efficiency and accuracy, with all of these conditions on how we’re going to interact, like, ‘You’re going to come see me at this frequency,’ and ‘You’re going to submit these kinds of documents. And if you don’t…’ 

Folks complain about caseworkers being inaccessible, disrespectful, their demeanor not being especially helpful. There’s that power differential between the caseworker and the beneficiary, that ‘This person can control my livelihood and the well-being of my family.’ 

The program design of WIC shifts things. For WIC workers, their job is on the line if they don’t treat you well. Families tend to like their interactions with WIC staff and their subsidized child care providers because the incentive structure is designed to emphasize social service delivery with a personal touch—so they’re nice to families. I’m not saying that WIC is perfect, but I do think that they are really great components of the program that can be applied across the range of programs. 

Q: The federal Office of Family Assistance has taken steps that could begin to shift TANF to provide more cash to families, with fewer strings attached. What other changes are you seeing that you think are promising?

A: The federal government has moved toward thinking through creative ways to reduce administrative burden. Before the pandemic, WIC was really struggling with caseloads falling off. States were asking, “Why is this benefit underutilized? Why are people not redeeming all of their benefits? Why are people having to go to five different stores to redeem their benefits?” Honestly, it just sucks to try to use WIC in a store. 

In 2019 and 2020, there were proposals to the USDA to reduce administrative burdens around WIC access and redemption. Families wanted peer coaching on the shopping process—somebody who’s like them to help them. WIC already has a peer breastfeeding counselor companion program, so people started asking, If you’re doing that for breastfeeding, why not do that for redemption—for shopping? 

Now the USDA is looking towards piloting models on WIC expansion and retention that use community-based organizations that introduce peer opportunities. They’re testing what happens if we say to WIC recipients that, for a stipend, you could be the person that helps other people figure out how to shop.

My research means that I talk to people for a living, essentially. I try to get to know people, to honor, respect and value their perspectives about what they’re experiencing with the state, and their perspectives on their lives. It’s clear from research that many families want somebody to walk them through the process of actually using the benefit in the store, not just hand them a list of what they can buy or say, ‘Here sign up for the app.’

Peer support and community liaisons are a strategy that could be tried more widely. When I ask people, “How did you hear about this program?” Do you know what they never say? “A billboard.” “An app.” Never. People say, “I heard about it through my family. I heard about it through the lady at church.” 

In the South, for the Black community, the church is still very much a social hub and source of connections to community resources. People are giving referrals on who can watch your kid, and it provides a whole bunch of different services and connections to things other than what happens on Sunday. So why wouldn’t you make a concerted effort to train community liaisons—in childcare centers, churches, places where people are actually going to be—to educate people about their benefits? 

Q: You’ve written about the importance of shifting power from the state to families. What have you learned in your research about families’ experiences of control and power in interactions with government agencies? 

A: The reason I do this work is because I grew up on all these programs. My family navigated the nonprofit space in addition to SNAP, Medicaid, Social Security, disability, all the things. And I’m from North Carolina. I have a love for the South and the rural South in particular. I do this work because it really matters. It matters a lot. It affects families so deeply, and it affected my family so deeply. 

A lot of families don’t have agency in many areas of their lives. They don’t necessarily get to decide where they get to live, because they can’t afford to move, and don’t get to decide how much they can make, because of limited options.

Agency means giving people options. Ideally, assistance would be cash, because the fact that you can spend it on whatever you want is really important. That just gives people a ton of agency. And ideally, the federal government would get more involved in ensuring that every local government offers high quality service delivery. It shouldn’t be that eligible families experience delays and denials.

Then there’s the agency you can give people in deciding how they’re going to interact with programs. Simple things are just so powerful and so freeing. When people can say, “My WIC worker was really flexible with me, she let me reschedule my interview to fit my work hours,’ or ‘Instead of doing it in person, she worked with me to do a phone interview.” That agency, it’s bonkers. 

It’s important to listen to people who are using these programs, who are struggling to stay on, or who couldn’t get on in the first place. To have some terms that the beneficiary gets to set, that’s super duper powerful. I’m not a one-size-fits-all policy prescriber. The goal is to get creative and to do harder, more serious work around incorporating people’s perspectives into policy design.

Sign up to receive email updates and news from FPP!