Benefits and Informal Workers

ACORN International COVID-19 Economics

  New Orleans        For years, I have harped on the need to make “maximum feasible participation” an emphasis on delivery of all governmental benefit programs.  The pandemic has heightened visibility of the gap between eligibility in target populations and distribution of approved and legislated benefits to the populations.  In the United States, we see this problem routinely, making arguments about entitlements more speculative than factual.

There are constant access issues.  Programs increasingly requiring access via the internet, when the digital divide is still acute.  Even when able to apply on cellphones, finding that the applications are not adaptable to mobile devices.  The rate of participation in many US programs when down when governmental offices when remote, effectively denying many potential beneficiaries access to critical support and advice to access benefits.

We have a long way to go in the USA, but it’s instructive to look at the even longer miles faced by other countries, like India, where these huge divides are even larger.  ACORN India has organized informal workers there for the last fifteen years.  When the pandemic hit, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut the country down with almost no notice forcing millions of informal workers, some of whom were migrants, all of whom depended on daily work for livelihood, to try desperately to return from the country’s megacities to their home villages.  As the pandemic has continued, the Indian government has established some lifeline benefit programs, but once again that’s where the problem begins, rather than ends.

The government had no way to get the benefits to informal and migrant workers.  Access had to be through e-Shram, their electronic delivery system, but to get the money, even if meager, workers had to be registered, which most were not, and their registration had to be connected to their Aadhaar accounts to allow money transfers, creating another lockout.

Reports indicate that around 30 million workers have now registered.  Encouragingly, almost half, according to the Labor Ministry, are women, 48.8%, compared to men at 51.2%.  There are an estimated 380 million informal workers, so less than 10% have been registered even though officials claim they will get this done by March 2022, six months from now.  Of the workers registered less than 3% are migrant workers, so the program is not reaching that constituency yet.  Of those registered, 55%, more than half, are not connected to the Aadhaar system, so still are unable to receive funds directly.  The government is collecting lots of data from the registration process and finding that 91.5% of the informal workers are making less than 10,000 rupees or not much over $100 per month.

ACORN has support to assist in obtaining our members and other informal workers in accessing benefits but find ourselves caught in one gap after another.  Getting money for street vendors to return to marketplaces depended on banks actually distributing the credit provided by the government, but, like the US problem of getting relief to tenants and landlords to prevent evictions, it was a trickle, not a torrent.  The court ordered the government to implement the long-delayed registration, shifting our focus as well, but none of this is easy.

Congress is now arguing over how to finally increase the US safety net without admitting in the same fashion that this should have all been done years before to prepare for crisis, not assume there would never be one.  India is a case study on what happens in trying to build social service infrastructure, even at a minimal level, from scratch.  Congress trying to choose between social service programs seems stupid.  We need them all, even if small, in order to be able to scale later.  If you don’t believe it, look at what is happening in India now.