Online government services: who benefits and who suffers?

A new executive order will bring more digital services online in a bid to streamline the way people access them. But some experts warn the move could create problems for impoverished and other disadvantaged communities.

Last month, 17 government agencies were asked to “modernize” the way they deliver dozens of essential services. The Biden administration has said it hopes to reduce what it calls a “time tax” Americans pay to get things done.

The changes include allowing Americans to go online to renew their passports or apply for certain benefits instead of going to local government offices. These efforts will build on the recent modernization of the Veterans Administration and some of its programs.

Going forward, the Department of Health and Social Services, the Department of Agriculture and other agencies will begin to change the way programs are accessed and the services provided. The White House has promised to transparently monitor and report on the success of modernization efforts.

Experts warn that while efforts to make services more easily accessible through technology hold great promise, changes must be undertaken with care so that they do not further exacerbate a well-known digital divide and put those who do not. may not have access to the technology or may not have access to the technology I don’t know how to use it with an even greater disadvantage.

“Making it easier for people asking for government assistance is a laudable goal. We have some concerns. As you know, the devil is always in the details, ”said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, which includes a food bank and thrift store, as well as staff who help coordinate the activities of advocacy.

“The first problem is the digital divide,” Bailey added. “A lot of times when we make it easier to do things online, we make it more difficult – if not impossible – to do things in person or in writing. A lot of people try to get by with cell phones, but the forms are difficult to fill out on a phone.

Others fear that the burden on programs will increase.

“I am generally in favor of streamlining benefit programs and the use of technology, but there are downsides,” said Angela Rachidi, American Enterprise Institute researcher in poverty studies. “When I was working for New York City Social Services, we switched to an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application. People are much more likely to apply to SNAP while it is online, including those who are not eligible or have no intention of following through. It created a lot of back work for the agency with little return – more work for these agencies requires more public money.

Yet she also sees a setback. She said submitting documents and verifying information are activities that should all be electronic, just as the administration should benefit from. People should be able to check their electronic benefit transfer balance online, which some places already do.

What would the command do

In a recent conference call with reporters, Neera Tanden, one of President Joe Biden’s senior advisers, said that to streamline processes, the administration looked at “the most important sticking points for people with their government – filing taxes, applying for Social Security benefits, waiting in TSA queues – and focusing on ways to reduce that friction. ”

In a White House statement announcing the executive order, Biden called the move “decisive action to promote fiscal stewardship.” He added: “We have to prove that democracy still works, that our government still works and can serve our people. “

The statement said the ordinance “creates a sustained intergovernmental service delivery process that aligns with the times that matter most in people’s lives – like turning 65, having a child, or applying for a small business loan. “.

Here are some of the processes that the White House says will change:

  • Retirement. Retirees can apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits online in a streamlined process.
  • Filing and management of taxes. Filers can schedule an online customer support call and use online tools to file or manage refunds.
  • Survive the disaster. The 25 million people, families and businesses affected each year by a federally recognized natural disaster could file claims and provide photos of the damage directly from their mobile phones.
  • Travel related change. Renew passports and benefit from shorter security lines with technology that simplifies the process.
  • Student debt. Better manage student loans, including an online payment portal for publicly funded loans, utility loan cancellation requests, and more.
  • Access veterans benefits and information.
  • Get service. Enroll in programs that benefit low-income and vulnerable populations, recertify income status, and more easily connect between programs.
  • Apply online for small business administration programs including farm loans
  • Medical care. Use more and better telehealth options.

The digital divide

The Close the Gap Foundation highlights some of the challenges created by a digital divide, a situation in which low-income or elderly people may find it difficult to use programs and services that rely on technology they cannot own. -be not or do not know how to use.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this divide as distance learning became necessary and schools and communities rushed to provide technology to those who did not have access to it. It wasn’t just a matter of not having a computer. Millions of people also did not have access to the Internet. The Close the Gap Foundation said one in four students did not have reliable devices or adequate internet connections.

The foundation said that during the pandemic, children from low-income families were 10 times less likely to engage in distance learning than households with annual incomes above $ 25,000 per year.

A Pew Trust report published in September noted discrepancies in the count of the number of people disadvantaged by the digital divide. An FCC estimate says 14.5 million. But the report notes that the BroadbandNow research group found 42 million. And that Microsoft calculated 157 million.

Pew reported that it is “even more unclear how much the monthly cost of the broadband subscription deters Americans from having a connection at home or keeps them on slow, outdated connections that render video. streaming, document sharing, and other extremely slow or impossible common tasks.

In April 2020, Deseret News reported on how the Millard School District parked a school bus equipped with Wi-Fi in a rural neighborhood to allow families to access the internet. Across the country, reports of students doing their homework in cars parked outside public libraries or businesses with open Wi-Fi connections abound.

Even now, the Federal Communications Commission says that “nearly 15 million schoolchildren do not have internet access at home, creating a nationwide homework gap that is unresolved could turn into a gap. of opportunities ”. The Affordable Connectivity Program administered by the FCC offers eligible households a $ 30 rebate on broadband, while those living on tribal lands can save $ 75.

People have been affected in many other ways as well. New America reported that healthcare is increasingly relying on broadband. Among those in the UnitedHealthGroup, the number of telehealth visits increased from 1.2 million in 2019 to 34 million in 2020.

The simple act of getting the COVID-19 vaccine usually requires you to make an appointment online.

New America reported that white adults have better access than blacks, who have better access than Hispanics. Native Americans are among the most disadvantaged.

Find help face to face.

While they recognize the benefits of digital services, experts warn that face-to-face interaction shouldn’t go away.

Rachidi said some program participants have significant issues that can be resolved by working with someone in person. “For example, staff may discover issues of domestic violence or child abuse and neglect. When there is no personal interaction, these issues are discovered. Opportunities to connect benefit recipients to jobs or other supports might be missed if everything is online or digitized, ”she said.

Bailey worries that rationalization is combining things that are best left apart. “This may mean that I only have to answer 13 questions for SNAP, but since the app is combined with Medicaid, it takes 60 questions whether or not I ask Medicaid,” he said.

When the government relies on long online forms, “people abandon applications and the government limits other application options to get people to online platforms. This means that some of the most vulnerable are left behind without a social worker to help them, ”he noted.

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroad Urban Center, urged Utah to shorten its request for public aid. He describes himself as a “big fan” of the Executive Order for its potential to make it easier for people to apply for government programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

Right now, Utah’s online application for the programs can take up to two hours, he said, noting that “state officials say the federal government is still asking them to ‘add questions and make the questions harder to understand. This decree should remove this excuse. ”

But he, too, sees potential problems. Tibbitts said the forms are not optimized for filling out using smartphones, even though up to 80% of participants who apply for and use Medicaid and food stamps complete the application and submit documents online at the using smartphones. While Utah is reportedly in the process of changing that, he said the internet moved to mobile devices before the state’s last major system upgrade.

It’s not a Utah-centric problem, Tibbitts added. States vary in how they have optimized their forms and how they currently accept them.

“Many of our homeless clients cannot use the internet at all, but for others their phone is the only reliable internet access they have,” he said.

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