But while Florida leaders appear to have taken extraordinary measures to block workers from accessing jobless benefits, in many ways, the result is the logical conclusion of a nefarious playbook that GOP lawmakers have used for years to make accessing bedrock safety net programs as difficult as possible.
The process of “bureaucratic disentitlement” is the intentional use of red tape, byzantine application systems that even lawyers have trouble navigating, onerous paperwork requirements and systematic underfunding to shrink vital programs by making benefits painstakingly hard to access.
Bureaucratic disentitlement is particularly nefarious because it doesn’t just lead to fewer people getting benefits — it keeps many eligible people from getting the aid they need. This, of course, is a feature, not a bug.
Unfortunately, what is happening in Florida is just the tip of the iceberg. Many state unemployment insurance systems are in pitiful shape because of outdated technology, years of federal neglect and deprivation of needed administrative resources when unemployment was low — often in conjunction with shortsighted business tax cuts. Now, states from Michigan to New York to Kentucky are reporting system crashes due to overload — and jobless workers are reporting they’ve had to call state 1-800 numbers literally hundreds of times before they get through. Many aren’t getting through at all.
Bureaucratic disentitlement has eroded more than just unemployment insurance. Long before the novel coronavirus, GOP lawmakers — including President Trump — spent years weaponizing bureaucracy to strangle programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid through policies such as onerous work requirements. The implicit premise is that poverty stems from “unwillingness to work” — rather than well-documented structural barriers such as poverty-level wages; the sharp edges of the low-wage labor market; or barriers to work such as caregiving responsibilities, disability or illness, or the stigma of a criminal record.
While work requirements don’t address employment barriers or make jobs appear out of thin air, they are a highly effective tool for shrinking program enrollment. Arkansas was the first state to implement Trump’s new Medicaid work requirements, phasing them in beginning in 2018. Over seven months after the policy took effect, 18,000 people lost Medicaid coverage, many despite still being eligible. People were initially required to submit their work hours via an online system that was, absurdly, open during limited hours.
With work requirements in Medicaid and SNAP sensibly being suspended for the duration of the pandemic — and multiple federal courts blocking states from adding them to Medicaid even before the pandemic — a critical lesson from this era should be the immense cruelty of tying something as essential as health insurance or food to employment in the first place.
Even now, after more than 25,000 deaths related to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Trump is using bureaucracy to block access to the Affordable Care Act, refusing to reopen the marketplace to allow the 28 million people who were uninsured heading into the pandemic to enroll in ACA coverage. As a result, workers who lost employer-based health insurance can sign up for coverage at healthcare.gov; others are out of luck. He’s also refused to waive paperwork requirements his own administration put in place in 2017, requiring workers to submit documentation showing they lost employer-based health insurance — an impossible feat for many whose employers shut down weeks ago.
In the case of SNAP — the nation’s largest food assistance program, which before the pandemic helped about 37 million Americans afford food — Trump has spent the better part of two years advancing a constellation of controversial regulations that, before the pandemic, were set to strip an estimated 3.7 million people of food assistance through red tape.
Trump has even proposed changing how poverty is measured in the United States, which could render millions ineligible for assistance under programs that base eligibility on the federal poverty line, even though their economic circumstances haven’t improved.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has shined a long-overdue light on how asset limits — which bar recipients of certain types of assistance from having even a few thousand dollars in the bank — have come to function as a “deadly poverty trap.” The $2,000 Supplemental Security Income asset limit, for example, virtually hasn’t budged in decades. Researchers and anti-poverty advocates have been ringing the alarm bell for years on how counterproductive it is that we have functionally prohibited low-income people — including millions of people with disabilities and serious health conditions — from having even modest rainy-day savings. And now, it’s raining.
Adding insult to injury, these types of access barriers generally come with a hefty price tag because they’re difficult to administer — meaning their proponents are willing to spend significant sums to keep people from getting needed benefits. In one recent example, the Trump administration issued a proposed rule in January to increase the frequency of “continuing disability reviews” for Social Security disability beneficiaries — and in so doing, made clear they’re willing to spend nearly $2 billion to take $2.6 billion in life-sustaining benefits away from hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
In “normal” times, when it’s disproportionately low-wage workers, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups being wrongfully denied or running themselves ragged trying to access critical benefits, few who aren’t personally affected notice or care. But now that it has grabbed so much of the nation’s attention — and so many people have seen the flaws of this paradigm firsthand — it’s time we named the need for a shift.
Similar to how public health experts have underscored that we’re all in this together when it comes to addressing a pandemic, this moment offers a long-overdue opportunity to retire the “us and them” mythology surrounding the safety net. Long before the pandemic, research found that 4 in 5 Americans would experience poverty or unemployment or need to turn to the safety net for at least a year during their working years. Instead of viewing public assistance as a budget problem to be shrunk, it’s time to start understanding it as a public investment we’ve put in place to protect all of us — and that it’s in all of our interest to make sure it’s up to the task in times of need. That holds true even for people who never personally receive aid, because of the broader macroeconomic benefits — as well as the significant public health benefits — of those investments.
For now, most eyes are, as they should be, on containing the spread of the virus, helping workers and families weather the crisis financially, getting aid to states, and minimizing the depth of the coming recession through as much economic stimulus as possible. But as we begin to think longer term about the lessons we can’t afford not to learn in this moment, high on the list should be the need to rebuild and revalue our bedrock public programs that help workers and families maintain a basic standard of living in times of need.