Rights to Benefits in the Digital Age

ACORN Ideas and Issues
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New Orleans       I don’t want to become a broken record playing the same song over and over, second verse same as the first, but this is a long march so we have to keep on trekking.  I’m talking now about what I call “maximum eligible participation.”  Simply put, everyone should receive all benefits to which they are entitled.  It’s their right, whether in the US or anywhere else in the world.  Unfortunately, in the US the government too often, and sometimes deliberately depending on the state where you live, creates barriers to eligible applicants receiving benefits.  In ACORN, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, we set up ACORN Service Centers whose purpose was to both provide tax assistance, but also once we had the income data, moving eligible low-and-moderate income families into the any other benefits where they might qualify to receive.

A fellow traveler, Bryce Covert, jumped on this train with me in a recent piece in the New York Times.  She was so spot on in this long running campaign that I have to celebrate her article and welcome her aboard.  Every voice for justice here is important, especially if we can build up more muscles for the cause.

First, she cites the most recent outrage, when the expanded Child Care Tax Credit went automatically to many eligible families (hooray!), but didn’t get to 2.3 million children whose families hadn’t recently filed income taxes.  She correctly zinged the IRS for not getting the information from other government agencies and then when forced to do so “…started a portal for anyone it didn’t find, [but] the form didn’t work on a cellphone, was available only in English, required an email address and came with densely written instructions.”

Come on, man!!  You see what I’m talking about, right?  When people have a right to something, why get gamey when we’re talking about a family’s health and well-being.

There’s method to their madness as Covert points out, using Arkansas as a pathetic example:

Work requirements, for example, have mostly kept people off welfare and further impoverished them, and when briefly instituted in Arkansas’s Medicaid program, a work requirement kicked people off — many of whom actually qualified — without increasing how many worked.

It doesn’t have to be.   Covert cites some progress in Minnesota thanks to a partnership with Code for America:

It worked with the state to create a new, simplified website where residents can apply for nine programs at once — including food stamps, child care subsidies and housing assistance — that has reduced the time involved from over an hour to less than 12 minutes. It works on a mobile phone, is available in Spanish, makes uploading documents easier, and doesn’t require a log-in. The questions it asks are in clear language and redundant ones are eliminated. Ninety-four percent of people using the new site say they had a positive experience.

So, yes, it’s not impossible to do all of this better and make it easier and straightforward for people to obtain their rights and receive benefits.  The problem is simple.  Government has to be willing to do right for people, and that won’t happen unless all of the rest of us force the issue and make it happen.