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November 12th, 2019

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Hanging Scheme

TEN BILLION HOURS

Administrative burden and welfare politics

In addition to lagging behind many European economies in the breadth, amount, and quality of welfare provision, the United States also exhibits relatively low rates of take-up among the benefits it does make available. Non-take-up rates can be accounted for—at least in part—by the various bureaucratic barriers that welfare recipients face; multiple qualitative studies have documented the humiliating and arduous nature of applying for benefits. Even in the case of the ostensibly less-burdensome Earned Income Tax Credit, a large share of the transfer is captured by tax preparers.

In their 2019 book, Administrative Burden, Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan argue that these difficulties are not incidental. Through a close inspection of the administrative design of a series of domestic welfare policies (including the Affordable Care Act, SNAP, and Social Security) they demonstrate that difficulty accessing benefits is a core, and intentional, feature of America's welfare state.

From the book's introduction:

"Burdens matter. They affect whether people will be able to exercise fundamental rights of citizenship, such as voting; they affect whether people can access benefits that can improve quality of life, such as health insurance. Burdens can alter the effectiveness of public programs. Ultimately, administrative burdens are the fine print in the social contract between citizens and their government.

Administrative burdens are the product of political choices. In many cases, political actors see burdens as a policy tool to achieve ideological goals. Such choices are demonstrated by the maintenance of burdens even when changing circumstances call for governments to minimize them: The failure of the American administrative state to adapt Depression-era burdens on immigrants from Europe is one example of how not acting is itself a choice. Once the war began, Congress and the State Department increased restrictions under the justification that immigrants posed a security threat. In 1943, the new State Department visa application was four feet long."

Link to the book, and link to a January interview with the authors on the New Books Network.

  • Via a review of Herd and Moynihan's book: the Information Collection Budget report from the OMB, which estimates that "the public spent an estimated 9.78 billion hours on federal paperwork in 2015, a net increase of 350 million burden hours from 2014." Link.
  • Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward made a powerful case for non-take-up rates as a central clarifying element of the American welfare system: their 1971 book, Regulating the Poor, advocated mass enrollment in welfare programs to reveal the inadequacy of the benefits system. Link to the book, link to seminal 1966 essay that first proposed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy."
  • "This article explores the relationship between revolution and the bureaucratization of tax administration in early modern England and France." Edgar Kiser and Joshua Kane on the history of bureaucracy. Link. Tangentially related: a "history of file-keeping and bureaucratic paperwork in Maoist China" by Jian Ming Chris Chang. Link.
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