With an election around the corner, economic assistance programs—especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid—and integrated eligibility systems have come under major public scrutiny.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there that leads people to ask questions based on false assumptions. For example, aren’t most people who receive assistance inappropriately taking advantage of the system? Don’t these programs discourage work? Do people receiving benefits really need them?
Over the last two decades, I’ve served as a job and family services caseworker, an agency director, and now as Northwoods’ evangelist and advocate for economic assistance and child support.
I’ve seen the system from all angles and learned how easy it is for people who aren’t directly involved to make judgments about certain programs and the people who seek out services.
My goal today is to summarize and debunk some of the most common misperceptions I’ve heard.
Myth: People who receive assistance have nothing to do except apply for services.
Many people think economic assistance programs hurt more than they help, causing people who receive benefits to become too dependent on government aid. This perpetuates the belief that people who receive services have plenty of downtime where they could easily visit an agency to get their application processed.
In reality, many economic assistance recipients are the working poor—people who are often balancing multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and lack the luxury to leave work on a whim to visit the agency to drop off verification documents or meet with a caseworker.
Current systems make it harder for these citizens to receive services and challenge their ability to work toward self-sufficiency for their families.
Myth: People who receive assistance are “broken.”
It’s also often assumed that people who receive assistance are somehow “broken” and need to be “fixed.” It may seem harmless, but this mindset deters many people from seeking out assistance and support services, which breeds unnecessary churn and keeps them from moving forward.
We don’t need to fix anybody who’s broken; we just need to help get them back on their feet.
Society needs to normalize the idea of asking for help and remove the stigma surrounding services (not just economic assistance, but also housing, mental health, medical, and others) that provide stability in a household and prevent families from spiraling downward. These programs are not meant to be long-term solutions; rather, they help reduce insecurities and provide the foundation for recipients and their families to grow.
It’s also important here to consider the impact that perpetuating this myth has on other services. For example, poverty is often considered a predictor of child neglect. By deterring families from seeking out assistance, we risk inadvertently increasing the likelihood that child welfare will have to get involved.
Myth: Economic assistance work only needs to be done in the office.
Work will always need to be done within agency walls—after all, face-to-face contact is often key to ensure vulnerable citizens have confidence in an agency’s ability to quickly and accurately provide benefits. However, like the first myth, forcing people to visit an agency office to access services is a major roadblock for many people who need help.
Think about it: with today’s technology, you can work through most of the process of buying a house on your mobile device. Doesn’t it seem nonsensical that someone can’t manage their application for benefits the same way?
There’s a major opportunity to leverage technology and data sharing to make services more accessible. Mobile apps, portals, email, telephony, process automation—the technology exists and is widely used in other industries. It just hasn’t been applied to enable more effective economic assistance processing. We’re beginning to see more pilot projects, but they have yet to reach a tipping point to become the norm.
Similarly, services should be more widely available outside agency walls. Imagine if someone could start their application for services at a food bank, library, or somewhere else they’re already spending time instead of making an additional trip to the agency. They could be on their way to receiving services so much quicker. (Related, this is also where integrated eligibility or some form of cafeteria plan for benefits determination can have an impact. A person should be able to see everything they’re eligible for and choose which assistance programs they need.)
Myth: There are too many loopholes for economic assistance programs to be effective.
In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed closing an automatic eligibility loophole that allows states to provide SNAP benefits to residents who would otherwise not meet the low-income asset limitations. (Another proposal tightening the work requirement was just finalized last month.)
Unsurprisingly, this opened the flood gates for comments on how easy it is for anyone—even millionaires—to inappropriately take advantage of the broken system.
While an onslaught of media coverage may have implied otherwise, the number of people who take advantage of this type of loophole is statistically insignificant compared to overall need. It’s misleading to use this one story as the model for why this proposal and/or others like it should go into effect. Shaping policy around it would be costly to states, agencies, and workers that would need to re-program their systems to deal with the changes.
Further, suggesting that agencies can save money on the backs of the working poor is not the answer. The government should be knocking down hurdles that stand in the way, not adding more of them.
Myth: Economic assistance programs treat individual people problems.
As several of the myths above demonstrate, it’s dangerous to target and make examples of individuals (or specific groups of individuals) when talking about how to improve economic assistance programs. The need for assistance stems from a systemic poverty problem, not individual people problems.
Targeting minor loopholes that impact small subsets of individuals is not the way to solve said problem. All that does is perpetuate existing issues and feed into people’s biases by making it harder for recipients to get out of poverty and ultimately grow beyond it.
In reality, allowing people to accumulate a safety net—whether though food/cash assistance, housing, or other programs—has been linked to lifting and keeping people out of poverty. That’s the story we should be sharing.
Economic Assistance Evangelist Greg Tipping contributed to this post.