The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The government’s inefficient delivery means relief will come too late for many Americans

President Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on March 27.
President Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on March 27. (Evan Vucci/AP)

LAST WEEK, tens of millions of Americans received their $1,200 stimulus checks. With 22 million newly unemployed, food banks overwhelmed and renters at risk of eviction, for many, these funds arrived not a moment too soon. Unfortunately, stimulus checks will arrive unevenly over the coming months. The money might arrive too late for some of the most vulnerable Americans, underscoring a lesson we can’t afford to keep learning throughout this crisis: If we don’t pay closer attention to benefit delivery, for too many Americans, emergency relief will be relief in name only.

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While tens of millions of taxpayers have received their awards via direct deposit, millions more won’t receive them for months, if they receive them at all. Originally, researchers at the New America think tank estimated that only half of eligible families would receive funds this month. Fortunately, the Internal Revenue Service recently clarified a payment process for the nearly 10 million Americans who earn below the federal filing minimum and others for whom the government did not have bank information on file. Though a welcome development, this effort should have been a priority from the start. The weeks it took to clarify the steps the lowest-income Americans need to follow to get emergency relief is precious time gone.

The glitches in stimulus payments aren’t the only technical barriers facing those who need help right now — Americans are reaching for unemployment insurance and food assistance in record numbers and facing massive delays, due, in part, to computer systems in need of overhaul. The newly jobless around the country are battling with jammed phone lines and crashed websites as they try to file unemployment claims. New Jersey is asking retirees who can work the state’s glitchy unemployment system to volunteer their skills — it runs on COBOL, a 60-year-old programming language.

The troubles are broader than these technical hurdles. When it comes to government benefits, appropriating the money is only part of the challenge. The devil is in the delivery. The earned-income tax credit is one of the most generous credits for low-income Americans, yet almost a quarter of those eligible fail to claim this credit. Why? At least some of it is in the delivery — research suggests that reminders and simplified forms can significantly raise take-up rates, getting much-needed money to those who’ve earned it.

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Simplifying application processes and focusing on delivery has had remarkable results elsewhere. In Michigan, delivery-driven reform cut the country’s longest assistance application (more than 40 pages) down to 18 pages and streamlined access to food and health-care benefits. Of course, this kind of reform takes time to test and scale, and time is scarce in an emergency. In the words of Jennifer Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, “The best time to modernize essential government systems was 15 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Read more:

The Post’s View: Where’s your check? Ask GOP lawmakers.

Mike Chapple: The IRS’s stimulus payment plan is basically asking for fraud. Here’s how to avoid it.

Catherine Rampell: The covid-19 pandemic has revealed another area of critical government underinvestment

Helaine Olen: The stimulus package is a missed opportunity for American workers

Catherine Rampell: Trump’s mission to reopen the economy is his Hail Mary chance at reelection

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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