Center for American Progress

How To Address the Administrative Burdens of Accessing the Safety Net

How To Address the Administrative Burdens of Accessing the Safety Net

Easing burdens on eligible people participating in government programs can reduce poverty and inequity.

In this article
A mother and daughter wait for assistance at a food hub.
A mother and daughter wait for assistance at Universe City, a food hub in Brooklyn, New York, that is working to build food sovereignty while also promoting community healing practices, July 2020. (Getty/Spencer Platt)

Introduction and summary

A family loses Medicaid coverage just weeks before their 4-year-old’s critical surgery because of new Medicaid renewal filing requirements they did not know about.1 A person with a chronic illness is denied food stamps because the state agency omitted their apartment number on important letters; it takes 10 weeks of calling, documenting, and appealing to reverse the denial.2 A low-income mother drops out of Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program assistance for her infant child because she fears catching COVID-19 on public transportation, which she must take to reload her card in person.3 A man has his unemployment benefits withheld by the state because of an error on a form that caused an accidental overpayment nine years earlier.4

Three in five Americans will experience poverty in their adult lives.5 Living in or near poverty often comes with significantly more instability and less control over one’s day-to-day life.6 Unfortunately, this uncertainty is often made worse by an inconsistent safety net that creates onerous, unnecessary barriers to receiving vital assistance that can help low-income individuals and families both survive and escape spells of poverty. These government-imposed obstacles are known as “administrative burdens.”7 Broader than any specific program or benefit, administrative burdens refer to any challenge imposed on people that makes it significantly more difficult to access or maintain a benefit for which they would otherwise be eligible. Some governments also impose administrative burdens on certain activities they seek to restrict, such as voting, abortions, and adoptions by same-sex couples.8

This report illustrates the many forms that administrative burdens can take, the serious harms they cause, and the broad pathways for solutions that are available to reduce burdens on individuals across safety net programs, including the important steps that the Biden administration has already taken.9 While some programs are administered federally, others are administered at the state or local level, some with and some without federal guidance. Thus, there is an opportunity and onus for policymakers at all levels of government to reduce administrative burdens.

The pathways for solutions described in this report include:

  • Executing outreach and marketing efforts to increase awareness of benefit availability
  • Reducing onerous paperwork and in-person interview requirements
  • Streamlining the application processes across and within programs
  • Reducing the frequency and difficulty of recertification requirements
  • Removing asset tests and asset limits
  • Cutting work requirements
  • Increasing coordination of programs at state and federal levels
  • Properly funding and staffing benefits agencies so they are able to process claims efficiently
The economy is weaker when those who are eligible for support are prevented from receiving it, excluding people and communities from spending, safety, and stability.

As elements of program design, administrative burdens are typically sold as measures to weed out ineligible people and prevent fraud. Yet by focusing more on preventing so-called undeserving people from accessing benefits than on simply delivering vital services, policymakers have created so many hoops that participants must jump through that those who need help most are far too frequently denied it.10 Worst of all, administrative burdens perpetuate inequity because they tend to be most heavily placed on supports for low-income people, rather than those that serve the population as a whole. As a result, more often than not, administrative burdens fall hardest on people of color, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ people, and the elderly.11 Consequently, they come with significant economic costs, not savings: The economy is weaker when those who are eligible for support are prevented from receiving it, excluding people and communities from spending, safety, and stability.

Without significant and sustained progress on easing administrative burdens in the safety net, many of the people most in need of help will continue to be cruelly excluded because of needless barriers completely unrelated to their eligibility, with themselves, their families, and the entire economy suffering as a result.

A selection of government programs and benefits that primarily benefit low-income households and often come with significant administrative burdens
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
  • Earned income tax credit (EITC)
  • Child tax credit (CTC)
  • Housing vouchers and public housing
  • Unemployment insurance (UI)
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Medicaid
  • Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance marketplace

Administrative burdens take many forms

Administrative burden experts Donald Moynihan, Pamela Herd, and Hope Harvey group the costs that administrative burdens impose on people into three categories: learning, psychological, and compliance.12

  • Learning costs are rooted in the complexity embedded in the system and the difficulty of understanding how to navigate it, as well as the need to simply be aware of the program and its eligibility rules in order to benefit from it.
  • Psychological costs stem from the stigma of receiving government assistance and the stress and loss of autonomy experienced by applicants and participants. Low-income people are often shamed—frequently with substantial racist13 and ableist14 undertones—for needing and seeking assistance from the government.
  • Compliance costs result from the effort needed to complete the paperwork, interviews, travel, phone calls, documentation, and other requirements necessary to adhere to administrative rules and keep one’s benefits. These costs have also been called a “time tax,”15 representing the hours, days, weeks, or even years needed to wade through the system. This can include filling out countless forms, placing calls repeatedly only to sit on an endless hold, spending time finding difficult-to-obtain documentation, and going through the whole process every few months for frequent recertifications.

These costs can manifest in many ways, but they all serve to frustrate, discourage, and deter. The sheer amount of paperwork frequently results in errors and unfinished applications.16 In fiscal year 2017, for example, Americans spent a collective 11.5 billion hours on paperwork requirements from just federal agencies17—an average of 45 hours per adult.18 However, that burden is unevenly distributed, as it is likely that many people spent the equivalent of two full work weeks or more filling out paperwork, while others spent little to no time at all.

Moreover, paperwork can often be inaccessible if it is not clearly written in plain language; if translated versions are unavailable; if it does not consider the needs of people with specific vision, auditory, or cognitive impairments; or if staff are unavailable to offer assistance in a timely manner.19 Online forms can also be overly difficult to navigate, especially for the elderly and others without reliable access to the internet.20 Finding specific documentation can be challenging as well, particularly for low-income, elderly, or disabled people.21 Meanwhile, obtaining the proper identification necessary for some benefits’ use can be especially difficult for transgender and gender-nonbinary individuals.22

In fiscal year 2017, Americans spent a collective 11.5 billion hours on paperwork requirements from just federal agencies—an average of 45 hours per adult.

Notably, the use of only physical mail for some important benefit recertifications is a huge flaw, as about a quarter of Americans from across the income spectrum report having unopened mail.23 In addition, changing addresses frequently—which lower-income people are more likely do24—leads to mail getting lost and, therefore, crucial paperwork left unfiled. For instance, Colorado sends about 12 million letters to participants of public assistance programs each year but estimates that about 15 percent, or 1.3 million, of those letters get returned as undeliverable.25 Meanwhile, Missouri kicked 70,000 people off Medicaid in 2018, but about 60 percent of that group only lost coverage because they did not reply to a mailed renewal form, and more than 20,000 lost coverage because the state just could not find them.26


Percentage of the 12 million letters sent out to public assistance program participants in Colorado each year that are later returned as undeliverable

Disabled individuals often have to balance time and energy between caregiver schedules, public transportation, and medical appointments, along with their regular daily living concerns. Many disabled people rely on paratransit, which is riddled with performance issues, forcing them to schedule at least 24 hours in advance, as they are unable to access a more regular bus or train schedule.27 Paratransit users typically have to schedule windows for pickup rather than specific times and are still frequently subject to late arrivals,28 which could result in them being late to important evaluations, appointments for benefit renewals, and even work, putting their benefits and jobs at risk.29 Meanwhile, funding for service delivery at the Social Security Administration (SSA)—which distributes Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)—is increasingly being redirected toward disability reviews that often merely remove benefits for people who cannot make it through the slog of paperwork.30

The stigma society places on low-income people seeking assistance—who are often characterized as “undeserving”31—is, alone, enough to deter many people, but the systems and processes they are legally obligated to endure before receiving aid often reinforce and exacerbate that stigma. Moreover, the questions and requirements—such as drug tests, disclosure of private medical information, and frequent in-person interviews32—for applications and recertifications can be highly intrusive and demeaning, while the huge stakes of minor errors on time-consuming forms can cause immense stress, which can negatively affect both mental and physical health.33

People eligible for a benefit or program often fail to achieve full—or even modest—participation because of the lack of effective community outreach and education. Many people either do not know about programs, incorrectly think they are ineligible, or assume the benefit is too small to be worth all the hassle, which it sometimes is.34 Indeed, one study found that 43 percent of those eligible for the EITC did not know about it, and 33 percent incorrectly thought they were ineligible.35 These systems are tricky to understand and navigate, even for people who should be experts on them.36 Compliance costs can be both physical—work, time, and energy—and financial, such as lost wages or the child care, transportation, and third-party assistance costs needed to complete requirements on time. Another study found that having service providers assist applicants with completing forms increased SNAP applications by 80 percent.37 Clearly, it would be beneficial to do more community outreach and provide more navigators to spread awareness and ease the process of accessing benefits for participants.

Administrative burdens cause real harm

Each cost makes people less likely to complete the application process or maintain their benefits. Unsurprisingly, then, administrative burdens have been shown to directly reduce recipiency rates in safety net programs. In fact, a survey of people eligible for but not participating in SNAP found that 40 percent were deterred by the paperwork involved and another 37 percent noted that the application was too time-consuming given their family and work responsibilities; other studies found that new income documentation and in-person interview requirements decreased participation.38 Likewise, the stigma for using WIC and the learning curve for identifying WIC-allowable items have been shown to likely lead to the program’s underutilization.39 Moreover, in June 2018, Arkansas instituted work requirements within the Medicaid program for 30 to 49 year-olds, and by December, 17,000 had lost coverage, despite more than 95 percent appearing to meet the requirements to qualify for an exemption.40 This drop was mostly caused by confusion over the reporting process and who the new work requirements actually applied to.


Percentage of people eligible for but not participating in SNAP who were deterred by the paperwork involved

Losing access to benefits comes with serious consequences for people’s well-being, regardless of how benefits are lost. Cash assistance—be it in the form of the EITC, CTC, UI, SSI, or TANF—and other in-kind benefits, such as Medicaid, SNAP, and housing vouchers, have been proven to directly reduce poverty41 and, as a result, improve educational attainment, increase future employment and earnings, and improve health and development in the near and long term for adults and especially for children.42 By decreasing recipiency of aid for those who need it most, administrative burdens inflict significant harm on individuals’ and families’ well-being while also causing stress as a result of having to deal with those burdens—which has its own considerable negative health effects.43

Administrative burdens hurt the government workers enforcing them

Administrative burdens also impose unnecessary red tape on administrators and caseworkers, which can hurt their morale and pull them away from more important work, such as connecting beneficiaries with the right assistance.44 Burdens such as frequent recertification paperwork, outdated technology, a focus on fraud and disability reviews, and long, confusing forms and processes that cause applicant errors all impose avoidable, time-consuming tasks that distract staff from actually getting benefits to people in need. This results in increasing backlogs and wait times, which only further overwhelm agency staff and underserve applicants.

In California, the influx of SNAP applicants during the pandemic exposed underfunded and understaffed county offices, forcing many to close assistance hotlines just to catch up on paperwork.45 Meanwhile, thousands in Missouri are currently going hungry because the SNAP office is so understaffed that nearly 75 percent of calls are not getting through.46 Indeed, with almost 700,000 fewer state and local government jobs than in February 2020, burdens on the remaining government workers are significantly larger.47 That understaffing and stress only exacerbates the declines in service capacity for government agencies.

Administrative burdens are also harmful to society as a whole. When members of a community do not receive the benefits for which they are eligible, economic stability and growth suffer.48 Consumer spending will decline if benefit-eligible populations do not have the support they need from safety net programs such as UI, the EITC, or the CTC.49 And costs to communities may increase as individuals experience emergencies that could have been prevented had they initially received more support. For example, expanding Medicaid and reducing burdens that obstruct people from signing up can steer them toward more preventative and primary care, which costs less than future emergency room visits when conditions do not get treated properly.50

When members of a community do not receive the benefits for which they are eligible, economic stability and growth suffer.

Administrative burdens create inefficiency and waste in government. Benefits for low-income people—when they are accessible—get spent almost immediately, stimulating the entire economy.51 Moreover, reducing administrative burdens can make it easier for workers to pursue or maintain employment because it reduces the time and energy spent getting help just to meet basic needs. Indeed, when a person has their basic needs met, they are more productive on the job or in the job search, which ultimately leads to productivity gains throughout the economy.52 On the other hand, when individuals experience significant burdens when trying to access aid, it decreases their trust in the government to solve problems and provide meaningful assistance53 and can create additional stigma for recipients of safety net programs.54

Administrative burdens harm certain groups disproportionately

For many reasons, the costs imposed by administrative burdens fall particularly hard on low-income people. For one, low-wage workers tend to have hourly jobs with less control over their schedules, more fluctuation in their schedules week to week, and no paid time off, making it much harder to attend appointments that are only available during work hours, especially on short notice.55 One study found that SNAP participants given recertification interviews late in the month in which their certification period ended are 22 percent less likely to keep their benefits because they have less time to reschedule or find needed documentation after the interview.56

Volatile hours or a reliance on tips can also make it more difficult to report and project income on forms and reliably meet work requirements, while temporary decreases or increases in hours can result in lost benefits and require a time-consuming reapplication process.57 Studies have found that workers with unexpected hours or limited schedule control are significantly more likely to lose child care subsidies, which makes them less able to work.58 Meanwhile, low-income workers’ lack of reliable access to transportation, child care, and internet, among other things, simply puts more roadblocks in the way of them receiving and keeping benefits, especially for programs where in-person interviews are required for enrollment or recertification or where forms must be submitted either physically or digitally, but not both.59

The costs imposed by administrative burdens fall particularly hard on low-income people.

Benefits for programs that are used more often by the rich and white or that are at least more universal—for instance, Social Security—are typically much simpler to access, navigate, and maintain60 than those that primarily help low-income households, which are more likely to include people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ people.61 For example, the mortgage interest deduction—84 percent of which goes to the top 20 percent of households62—requires completing just a few lines on annual tax filing forms,63 while housing vouchers and other rent assistance for low-income homes are so underfunded that waitlists are typically thousands of people and yearslong, with only one-quarter of eligible households receiving the aid.64 Likewise, Medicare is accepted by more doctors than Medicaid because it is less burdensome and pays better for services.65

Overall, most government benefits available to upper- and middle-income Americans are accessed through the tax code, either when filing annual income taxes or simply through employer-based benefits, which are hardly noticeable.66 These include charitable deductions, state and local tax (SALT) deductions, 401(k) plans with employer matches, and tax-free flexible spending accounts. Although low-income workers can sometimes access those benefits as well, they more often work for employers with worse benefits and do not earn enough to claim itemized income tax deductions,67 most of which go to the top income brackets—with the exception of some low-income tax credits such as the EITC and CTC.68 Furthermore, higher-income households can easily claim multiple tax deductions at once, but low-income Americans typically have to complete separate applications for SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, WIC, and any other benefits they may need and are eligible for, each of which can take hours or days to complete.


Percentage of people receiving mortgage interest deduction who claim they have not used a government social program

Because of this designed simplicity, many middle- and higher-income Americans never have to think much about the benefits they are receiving:69 According to one survey, 64.3 percent of people using tax-free education savings plans and 60 percent of those receiving the mortgage interest deduction claim they “have not used a government social program.”70 Meanwhile, only about a quarter of people receiving SNAP, TANF, and subsidized housing made the same claim, and Medicaid users were 12 percentage points more likely to say they had received a government benefit than Medicare recipients.71

Administrative burdens are a political choice

Because administrative burdens fall disproportionately on low-income households and safety net participants, their harms most affect women, people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ people.72 Therefore, administrative burdens exacerbate inequity throughout society, among both class and demographic groups. These inequities are intentional.

Administrative burdens are often deliberately placed on certain programs because the more arduous the process is, the fewer people will complete it, regardless of eligibility.73 It is a subtle way for politicians—most often conservatives74—to reduce government spending on low-income households while undermining support for those same programs by convincing the public that they are ineffective, without the blame coming back to the politicians themselves.75

Political decisions created these [administrative] quagmires, and it will take political will and action to solve them.

Often, particularly onerous administrative burdens are the result of historic racism or other biases against the most common participants in a program.76 For example, many policies that have created barriers to receiving assistance from TANF—as well as its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—such as harsh work requirements and even restrictions on sexual activity, were rooted in racist stereotypes about Black mothers, exemplified by safety net opponents’ use of the stigmatized term “welfare queens.”77

States are also incentivized to keep enrollment low as a short-term cost-cutting measure. During the COVID-19-induced recession, for example, the governor of Florida admitted that the state UI system’s horribly slow response to the spiking number of unemployed was the result of “pointless roadblocks” previously put in place by the state to “to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.”78

Chronic underfunding of agencies tasked with distributing benefits—either via budget cuts or years of flat funding in the face of rising demand—is another political choice that imposes significant administrative burdens. By allowing agencies to become severely understaffed, lawmakers create massive backlogs and wait times, which ultimately leads to far fewer people receiving the benefits they need to survive. Staff at the SSA call center declined by 12 percent from 2010 to 2019, despite call volume growing by 6 percent; as a result, the average wait time was six times higher in 2019 than it was in 2010.79 Meanwhile, the median wait time for an appeal for SSDI benefits has improved from its peak of 839 days in 2015, but it was still at 506 days in 2019.80


Median wait time, in days, for an appeal for SSDI benefits to be processed in 2019


Number of people who died waiting for a decision from the SSA on their appeal following an initial denial of Social Security disability benefits (2008–2019)

Sadly, the consequences of these political decisions can be deadly for those affected. From 2008 to 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 110,000 people died waiting for a decision on their appeal after an initial denial of Social Security disability benefits, while 50,000 filed for bankruptcy waiting for an appeal between 2014 and 2019.81 The troubles are only compounded during a crisis such as COVID-19. A projected half-million fewer Americans were awarded SSI or SSDI benefits in 2020 and 2021 because of SSA office closures across the country that were not accompanied by other accommodations for applicants.82 The disorder and lack of preparedness after years of disinvestment in the UI system also meant that an additional 7.8 to 12.2 million newly eligible people could have filed for UI benefits in the first weeks of the pandemic but could not get through the system.83

Political decisions created these quagmires, and it will take political will and action to solve them.

Progress is being made, but more is needed

Many experts, journalists, and career bureaucrats have been ringing the bell on administrative burdens for some time, and the Biden administration has clearly been listening.84 On his first day of office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that broadly covered racial equity but also contained two sections instructing all federal agencies to assess barriers to accessing and fully using government benefits and services.85 The executive order called for a report to the president assessing barriers to full and equal participation in government programs created by government policies. This report was published in July 2021 and included a section titled “Administrative burden exacerbates inequity,” offering 37 potential solutions to reducing known burdens, including by providing additional assistance with applications; cutting wait times, in-person interviews, and recertifications; and using broad categorical eligibility and automatic enrollment.86

The White House’s most significant step toward addressing administrative burdens was another executive order, signed in December 2021, focused on “customer experience and service delivery.”87 This order detailed 36 mandated actions across 17 federal agencies to reduce administrative burdens and improve Americans’ experience with the government.88 Among the most notable of those actions was reducing paperwork for safety net benefits by automatically certifying income eligibility for enrollments and renewal; streamlining safety net programs with an online platform; and a “no-wrong door” policy in which interacting with one federal program can connect and automatically enroll a person with any others for which they are eligible.89

Following up on President Biden’s December 2021 executive order, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memo to all federal agencies in April 2022 providing guidance on how to apply the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 to reduce administrative burdens.90 The memo instructs agencies to work with the public—specifically users of the programs—to fully understand the “time, financial, and psychological costs” imposed from the beginning to the end of a user’s experience. Moreover, it encourages agencies to follow leading practices on reducing burdens, including by simplifying paperwork requirements, enhancing outreach, improving options for how required information can be submitted, and using top user-centered design practices on forms, communications, and web platforms.91

Beyond these encouraging developments, the Biden administration has also taken concrete steps to ease some administrative burdens by reversing work requirements on Medicaid; increasing funding for Navigator programs, which helps people sign up for Medicaid, CHIP, and ACA marketplace health insurance; relaxing documentation requirements for rental assistance; and simplifying rules for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.92

Many states have also been active in reducing burdens in their safety nets. Minnesota, for example, created a website with streamlined applications and forms for nine safety net programs in an effort to significantly reduce time spent on paperwork and increase take-up of multiple programs for eligible residents.93 Michigan also implemented some reforms that made renewal applications for health care, food assistance, child care, and cash assistance benefits 80 percent shorter and cut their processing time nearly in half, resulting in significantly more completed and successful applications, fewer errors and office visits, and potentially 200,000 hours saved for caseworkers each year.94 Likewise, Massachusetts passed legislation in 2021 eliminating all asset limits on TANF and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) in the state.95

Also read

Fixing administrative burdens demands a concerted effort from all levels of government

Improvement to individual administrative burdens in individual programs is much needed, but any upgrade by itself will be insufficient long term without a cultural change, within the bureaucracy and among politicians designing programs, that emphasizes efficiency, user experience, and participation. There needs to be a pervasive desire in government to shift as many burdens as possible off of individuals and onto the state.96 The Biden administration is leading this effort and should continue to expand its attempts to reduce administrative burdens as it seeks to make lasting change that will outlive the administration. State, territorial, tribal, and local governments should all follow this federal example and seek to reduce burdens on any safety net programs, benefits, and services they are responsible for administering.

There needs to be a pervasive desire in government to shift as many burdens as possible off of individuals and onto the state.

The potential solutions to administrative burdens are too numerous and specific to individual services and programs to list entirely. Yet the following broad, nonexhaustive categories of actions would ease administrative burdens in any program to which they are applied:

  • Executing outreach and marketing efforts to increase awareness of benefit availability: Overcoming learning costs by ensuring that everyone is informed about all the supports they are eligible for and by providing assistance in navigating what is often a confusing process would be a huge first step in ensuring higher participation.
  • Reducing onerous paperwork and in-person interview requirements: Much of the information the government needs from an applicant should already be on file, making excessive paperwork and documentation a burden on individuals that the state could more easily and efficiently bear. Many in-person interviews—which are proven to reduce participation, as they can be challenging to attend when low-income individuals lack reliable transportation or child care and face inflexible work schedules—could be replaced with phone calls.97 Reducing these burdens would also significantly free up workers at government agencies to spend their time more efficiently.98
  • Streamlining the application processes across and within programs: Anyone interacting with a safety net program or other benefits should be informed about and be able to quickly and easily apply to all benefits for which they would be eligible. While many programs have different qualifications and eligibility rules that would need to be consolidated considerably before applications could be condensed into one form,99 the increased efficiency and recipiency from doing so would be hugely important.
  • Reducing the frequency and difficulty of recertification requirements: Mandating frequent recertifications to maintain benefits is a major cause of dropouts. In California, the majority of people leaving SNAP were found to still be eligible.100 Renewals should be made as simple and automatic as possible, with the least lift required from participants.
  • Removing asset tests and asset limits: Beyond creating a cliff that traps people in poverty, asset tests also create onerous paperwork and documentation requirements, forcing low-income households into the time-consuming and error-prone process of documenting every one of their assets. For this reason, asset tests tend to significantly decrease participation in safety net programs.101
  • Cutting work requirements: Work requirements have not proven to increase work participation in the long run102 and, similar to asset tests, serve more as paperwork requirements that inevitably cut off benefits for some eligible participants because the paperwork is too confusing, time-consuming, or otherwise difficult to consistently complete.103
  • Increasing coordination of programs at state and federal levels: Similar to streamlining programs, a lot of information needed to determine eligibility may be held by multiple agencies or departments. Coordinating the sharing of that information automatically would be challenging but hugely beneficial. The federal government also has significantly more resources and funding than individual states or localities, so any additional information or administrative help it can provide would be a boon to the process.
  • Properly funding and staffing benefits agencies so they are able to process claims efficiently: Underfunding and understaffing have been major causes of long wait times and applicants’ inability to receive assistance in numerous programs.104 Benefits agencies need to be funded and staffed sufficiently so that they can help applicants and recipients in a timely manner when issues arise, especially during economic downturns and mass disabling events—such as the COVID-19 pandemic—when a rush of applicants flood the system.

Aside from reforms to asset tests, work requirements, and funding, these changes can primarily be undertaken via executive authority, although that may vary depending on the program or service. Just as the federal effort to reduce administrative burdens is being run through the OMB, states and localities should start by centralizing responsibility with a commission or coordinating body that can lead this work, studying, developing, and managing progress toward the recommendations across the government. Speaking to and testing processes with actual users will also be crucial to ensuring that administrative burdens are being reduced without creating new ones.

While fraud should not be totally ignored, emphasizing it above all else has come at the cost of making it far more difficult for anyone to receive assistance, blocking eligible individuals who need help most but are unable to overcome the administrative burdens.105 Long term, Congress and state legislatures must work to create more universal programs with minimal means testing, putting the emphasis more on distributing benefits than ensuring that they only end up with so-called deserving people.


Administrative burdens exacerbate poverty and inequity by disadvantaging those with less financial means, physical ability, time, and systemic knowledge to navigate the system—or just avoid it altogether—and by discouraging or outright denying those who need the help most. This inequity is worsened because local agencies for safety net programs with the most low-income nearby residents frequently have the least capacity for handling and reducing administrative burdens,106 as well as because burdens are placed more extensively on people with low incomes, people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and the elderly. Finally, administrative burdens weaken the economy as a whole by reducing people’s time and ability to spend and work.107

It is simply not enough for the safety net to exist. People need to be able to easily and quickly access it. The only way to ensure that they can is by acknowledging and thoroughly addressing administrative burdens.


The author would like to thank Arohi Pathak, Lily Roberts, Marina Zhavoronkova, Mia Ives-Rublee, Emily DiMatteo, Jill Rosenthal, Caroline Medina, Nicole Lee Ndumele, Willliam Roberts, David Ballard, Nick Buffie, and Seth Hanlon of the Center for American Progress for their incredibly valuable input on this report. Ashfaq Khan and Anona Neal provided thorough and helpful fact-checking.


  1. Lexi Churchill, “The Trump Administration Cracked Down on Medicaid. Kids Lost Insurance.”, ProPublica, October 31, 2019, available at
  2. Matthew Cortland, “You Shouldn’t Need a Law Degree to Get Food Assistance,” TalkPoverty, May 2, 2018, available at
  3. Aditi Vasan, “To reduce child hunger, make WIC easier to access,” The Hill, September 16, 2021, available at
  4. Kate Davidson, “Why Oregon Is Keeping The Unemployment Benefits Of Hundreds,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, June 12, 2020, available at
  5. Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, “The Likelihood of Experiencing Relative Poverty over the Life Course,” PLoS ONE 10 (7)(2015): e0133513, available at
  6. Adewale Maye and Asha Banerjee, “The Struggles of Low-Wage Work” (Washington: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2021), available at; Katherine Guyot and Richard V. Reeves, “Unpredictable work hours and volatile incomes are long-term risks for American workers,” Brookings Institution, August 18, 2020, available at
  7. Randall S. Davis, “Book Review: Administrative burden: Policymaking by other means,”

    The American Review of Public Administration 50 (1) (2019): 113–115, available at

  8. Don Moynihan, “How to think about administrative burdens embedded in new voting laws,” Can We Still Govern?, February 14, 2022, available at; Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan, Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2018), available at; Frank J. Bewkes and others, “Welcoming All Families: Discrimination Against LGBTQ Foster and Adoptive Parents Hurts Children” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at
  9. Don Moynihan, “The Biden Administration Is Taking Administrative Burdens Seriously,” Can We Still Govern?, November 23, 2021, available at; Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd, “Understanding the Biden Customer Experience Executive Order,” Can We Still Govern?, December 15, 2021, available at; Sabeel Rahman, “OMB Announces New Action to Improve Government Services,” Press release, Executive Office of the President, April 12, 2022, available at
  10. Veronica Goodman, “Talk Policy: Administrative Burdens with Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan [Transcript],” Progressive Policy Institute, September 1, 2021, available at
  11. Suzanne Wikle, “Administrative Burdens Exacerbate Inequities and Must Be Reduced,” Center for Law and Social Policy, August 23, 2021, available at; Ashley Burnside, “The Biden Administration Should Increase LGBTQ Public Benefit Access and Data Collection,” Center for Law and Social Policy, February 18, 2021, available at; Pamela Herd, “How Administrative Burdens Are Preventing Access to Critical Income Supports for Older Adults: The Case of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Public Policy & Aging Report 25 (2015): 52–55, available at; Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan, “How Administrative Burdens Can Harm Health,” Health Affairs Health Policy Brief, October 2, 2020, available at
  12. Donald Moynihan, Pamela Herd, and Hope Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 25 (1) (2015): 43–69, available at
  13. Madison Allen, “Racism in Public Benefit Programs: Where Do We Go from Here?”, Center for Law and Social Policy, July 23, 2020, available at
  14. Alison Hayes, “Shame and the social welfare system,” Thriving While Disabled, July 24, 2020, available at
  15. Annie Lowery, “The Time Tax: Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens?”, The Atlantic, July 27, 2021, available at
  16. Ibid.
  17. U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, “Information Collection Budget of the United States Government: 2018” (Washington: U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2020), available at
  18. Author’s calculations based on Steven Ruggles and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, U.S. Census Data, for Social, Economic, and Health Research, 2017 American Community Survey: 1-year estimates” (Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center, 2017), available at
  19. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, “Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity: Report to the President” (Washington: Executive Office of the President, 2021), available at; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability Barriers to Inclusion,” available at (last accessed May 2022).
  20. Henry Goldman and Shelly Banjo, “NYC’s Complex and Confusing Vaccine Sign-Up Baffles the Elderly,” Bloomberg, January 11, 2021, available at
  21. Herd, “How Administrative Burdens Are Preventing Access to Critical Income Supports for Older Adults.”
  22. Margaux Johnson-Green, “Gender and Racial Justice in SNAP” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center, 2020), available at; Movement Advancement Project, “Identity Document Laws and Policies,” available at (last accessed April 2022).
  23. Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz, “Take the Quiz: Could You Manage as a Poor American?”, The New York Times, January 28, 2020, available at
  24. Robin Phinney, “Exploring Residential Mobility among Low-Income Families,” Social Service Review 87 (4) (2013): 780–815, available at
  25. Markian Hawryluk, “Return To Sender? Just One Missed Letter Can Be Enough To End Medicaid Benefits,” NPR, November 1, 2019, available at
  26. Sarah Fentem, “More Than Half Of Missourians Who Were Dropped From Medicaid Didn’t Answer Mail,” NPR, March 21, 2019, available at
  27. Kathy Curran and Jon Wells, “MBTA’s paratransit service ‘The Ride’ plagued by late, missed trips,” WCVB, February 18, 2022, available at; Robert Zimmerman and Charles Petrof, “Transportation Delayed is Transportation Denied: Report of On-time Performance in Pace’s City of Chicago Paratransit Service” (Chicago: Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, 2017), available at
  28. Phil Rogers and others, “When 30 Minutes Late Is ‘On Time’: NBC 5 Investigates PACE Paratransit’s Late Pickups,” NBC 5 Chicago, November 9, 2021, available at
  29. Ron Brooks, “Understanding how customers feel about paratransit will help us fix it,” Metro Magazine, January 14, 2020, available at
  30. David Weaver, “At Social Security, the deck is stacked against the disabled,” The Hill, June 16, 2021, available at; David Weaver, “Congressional appropriators prioritize Ukraine, but not Social Security,” The Hill, March 22, 2022, available at
  31. Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions.”
  32. Zoë Neuberger, “Streamlining and Modernizing WIC Enrollment” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2020), available at
  33. Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions.”
  34. Stephanie Land, “The House Farm Bill Doubles Down on TANF’s Mistakes,” TalkPoverty, May 3, 2018, available at
  35. Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions.”
  36. Elena Gormley, “Why Are SNAP Benefits So Confusing That Even Social Workers Can’t Figure Them Out?”, TalkPoverty, July 9, 2020, available at
  37. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “Experimental Estimates of the Barriers to Food Stamp Enrollment” (Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty, 2009), available at
  38. Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions.”
  39. Christina Chauvenet and others, “WIC Recipients in the Retail Environment: A Qualitative Study Assessing Customer Experience and Satisfaction,” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 119 (3) (2019): 416–424, available
  40. Benjamin D. Sommers and others, “Medicaid Work Requirements — Results from the First Year in Arkansas,” The New England Journal of Medicine 381 (2019):1073–1082, available at
  41. Robert Greenstein, “Examining the Safety Net” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2015), available at; Ajay Chaudry and others, “Poverty in the United States: 50-Year Trends and Safety Net Impacts” (Washington: Office of Human Services Policy, 2016), available at
  42. Samantha Waxman, Arloc Sherman, and Kris Cox, “Income Support Associated With Improved Health Outcomes for Children, Many Studies Show” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2021), available at; Chuck Marr and others, “EITC and Child Tax Credit Promote Work, Reduce Poverty, and Support Children’s Development, Research Finds” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2015), available at; Irwin Garfinkel and others, “Doing More for Our Children: Modeling a Universal Child Allowance or More Generous Child Tax Credit” (Washington: The Century Foundation, 2016), available at; Will Fischer, Douglas Rice, and Alicia Mazzara, “Research Shows Rental Assistance Reduces Hardship and Provides Platform to Expand Opportunity for Low-Income Families” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2019), available at
  43. Minnesota Department of Human Services, “We definitely struggle … The worry is always there” (St. Paul, MN: 2020), available at; Herd and Moynihan, “How Administrative Burdens Can Harm Health.”
  44. Institute for Research on Poverty, “Barriers to public service delivery and receipt” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019), available at
  45. Mackenzie Mays, “California food assistance program hits a ‘crisis point’ in keeping up with demand,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2022, available at
  46. Lauren Trager, “‘I am scared’; Hungry & desperate Missourians say they cannot reach anyone at Food Stamps Department,” KMOV, February 25, 2022, available at; Lauren Trager, “Staffing shortages possibly to blame for ‘abhorrent’ food stamp call center wait times,” KMOV, February 25, 2022, available at
  47. Rose Khattar, Marina Zhavoronkova, and Anona Neal, “Investments in the State and Local Government Workforce Will Deliver Crucial Services and Create Economic Security” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at
  48. Liz Hipple and Alix Gould-Werth, “Weak income support infrastructure harms U.S. workers and their families and constrains economic growth” (Washington: Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 2021), available at
  49. Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “How Are Safety Net Programs Like Unemployment Insurance, SNAP, and Medicaid Helping the Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic?”, October 2, 2020, available at
  50. Kimberly Amadeo, “How Preventative Care Lowers Healthcare Costs,” The Balance, November 22, 2021, available at
  51. Washington Center for Equitable Growth, “Factsheet: What the research says about the economics of income support programs,” September 16, 2021, available at
  52. Michael A. Schultz, “Income support programs boost earnings for low-wage workers by reducing household poverty in the United States,” Washington Center for Equitable Growth, August 26, 2021, available at
  53. Sha Hwang and Annelies Goger, “Want to restore trust in government? Start with customer experience,” Brookings Institution, January 12, 2022, available at
  54. Jennifer Stuber and Mark Schlesinger, “Sources of stigma for means-tested government programs,” Social Science & Medicine 63 (4) (2006): 933–945, available at
  55. Michael Karpman, Heather Hahn, and Anuj Gangopadhyaya, “Precarious Work Schedules Could Jeopardize Access to Safety Net Programs Targeted by Work Requirements” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2019), available at; Adewale Maye and Asha Banerjee, “The Struggles of Low-Wage Work.”
  56. Tatiana Homonoff and Jason Somerville, “Program Recertification Costs: Evidence from SNAP,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 13 (4) (2021): 271–298, available at
  57. Liz Ben-Ishai, “Volatile Job Schedules and Access to Public Benefits” (Washington: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2015), available at; Sarah B. Andrea, “COVID-19 is hitting tipped workers hard,” The Conversation, August 12, 2020, available at
  58. Julia R. Henly and others, “Determinants of Subsidy Stability and Child Care Continuity” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2015), available at
  59. Imran Cronk, “The Transportation Barrier,” The Atlantic, August 9, 2015, available at; Katie Reilly and Belinda Luscombe, “The Childcare Crisis,” Time, available at; Rasheed Malik and others, “America’s Child Care Deserts in 2018” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at; Rani Molla, “Good internet service is still a luxury in the US,” Vox, June 3, 2021, available at
  60. Lowery, “The Time Tax.”
  61. John Creamer, “Inequalities Persist Despite Decline in Poverty For All Major Race and Hispanic Origin Groups,” U.S. Census Bureau, September 15, 2020, available at; Azza Altiraifi, “Advancing Economic Security for People With Disabilities” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at; Ilan H. Meyer, Bianca D.M. Wilson, and Kathryn O’Neill, “LGBTQ People in the US: Select Findings from the Generations and TransPop Studies” (Los Angeles: UCLA School of Law Williams Institute, 2021), available at
  62. Congressional Budget Office, “The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures in 2019” (Washington: 2021), available at
  63. Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz, “Take the Quiz: Could You Manage as a Poor American?”
  64. Sonya Acosta and Brianna Guerrero, “Long Waitlists for Housing Vouchers Show Pressing Unmet Need for Assistance” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2021), available at; Sonya Acosta and Erik Gartland, “Families Wait Years for Housing Vouchers Due to Inadequate Funding” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2021), available at
  65. Billy Morgan, “The Cost of Administrative Burdens: Providers Stop Accepting Medicaid Due to Hassle, Lost Payments,” University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, July 12, 2021, available at; Dylan Scott, “Medicaid is a hassle for doctors. That’s hurting patients.”, Vox, June 7, 2021,
  66. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Policy Basics: Federal Tax Expenditures,” December 8, 2020, available at; Lewis Brown Jr. and Heather McCulloch, “Building an Equitable Tax Code: A Primer for Advocates” (Oakland: PolicyLink, 2014), available at
  67. Maye and Banerjee, “The Struggles of Low-Wage Work”; Trina Jones, “A Different Class of Care: The Benefits Crisis and Low-Wage Workers” (Durham, NC: Duke University School of Law, 2017), available at
  68. Congressional Budget Office, “The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures in 2019.”
  69. Badger and Sanger-Katz, “Take the Quiz: Could You Manage as a Poor American?”
  70. Catherine Rampell, “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Government Programs!”, The New York Times, February 11, 2011, available at
  71. Ibid.
  72. Robin Bleiweis, Diana Boesch, and Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, “The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at; Creamer, “Inequalities Persist Despite Decline in Poverty For All Major Race and Hispanic Origin Groups”; Altiraifi, “Advancing Economic Security for People With Disabilities”; Meyer, Wilson, and O’Neill, “LGBTQ People in the US.”
  73. Moynihan, Herd, and Harvey, “Administrative Burden: Learning, Psychological, and Compliance Costs in Citizen-State Interactions.”
  74. Martin Baekgaard, Donald P. Moynihan, and Mette Kjærgaard Thomsen, “Why Do Policymakers Support Administrative Burdens? The Roles of Deservingness, Political Ideology, and Personal Experience,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 31 (1) (2021): 184–200, available at
  75. Davis, “Book Review: Administrative burden: Policymaking by other means”; Lowery, “The Time Tax.”
  76. Victor Ray, Pamela Herd, and Donald Moynihan, “Racialized Burdens: Applying Racialized Organization Theory to the Administrative State,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (2022): 1–14, available at
  77. Ife Floyd and others, “TANF Policies Reflect Racist Legacy of Cash Assistance” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2021), available at
  78. Jim DeFede, “Exclusive: Gov. Ron DeSantis Acknowledges State’s Unemployment System Was Built With ‘Pointless Roadblocks’ To Pay Out ‘Least Number Of Claims’,” CBS Miami, August 4, 2020, available at
  79. Kathleen Romig, “After Years of Underinvestment, It’s Time to Rebuild the Social Security Administration,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 3, 2021, available at
  80. Aimee Picchi, “Almost 110,000 Americans died while waiting for a Social Security disability hearing,” CBS News, August 14, 2020, available at
  81. Ibid.
  82. Jonathan Stein and David A. Weaver, “Half a million poor and disabled Americans left behind by Social Security,” The Hill, November 15, 2021, available at
  83. Ben Zipperer and Elise Gould, “Unemployment filing failures,” Economic Policy Institute, April 28, 2020, available at
  84. Moynihan and Herd, “Understanding the Biden Customer Experience Executive Order.”
  85. Executive Office of the President, “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” Press release, January 20, 2021, available at
  86. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, “Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity.”
  87. Executive Office of the P  resident, “Executive Order On Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.”
  88. Executive Office of the P      resident, “FACT SHEET: Putting the Public First: Improving Customer Experience and Service Delivery for the American People,” Press release, December 13, 2021, available at
  89. Ibid.
  90. Shalanda D. Young and Dominic J. Mancini, “Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” U.S. Office of Management and Budget, April 13, 2022, available at
  91. Rahman, “OMB Announces New Action to Improve Government Services.”
  92. Don Moynihan, “The Biden Administration is Taking Administration Burdens Seriously – Part II,” Can We Still Govern?, December 2, 2021, available at
  93. Chris Serres, “Minnesota Department of Human Services launches streamlined process for applying for safety net programs,” Star Tribune, November 14, 2021, available at
  94. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Civilla, “Project Re:New” (St. Paul, MN: 2019), available at; Lowery, “The Time Tax.”
  95. Mass Legal Services, “OLGT 2021-85: TAFDC and EAEDC: Asset Eligibility Limits Eliminated,” November 10, 2021, available at
  96. Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan, “How Administrative Burdens Make Government Less Effective and What to Do About It,” Institute of Public Management and Economic Development, Autumn 2019, available at
  97. Homonoff and Somerville, “Program Recertification Costs: Evidence from SNAP”; Cronk, “The Transportation Barrier”; Reilly and Luscombe, “The Childcare Crisis.”
  98. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Civilla, “Project Re:New.”
  99. Dave Guarino, @allafarce, December 7, 2021, 10:27 a.m. ET, Twitter, available at
  100. Matthew Unrath, “Targeting, Screening, and Retention: Evidence from California’s Food Stamps Program” (Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy, 2021), available at
  101. Benjamin D. Sommers and others, “Reasons For The Wide Variation In Medicaid Participation Rates Among States Hold Lessons For Coverage Expansion In 2014,” Health Affairs 31 (5) (2012), available at
  102. LaDonna Pavetti, “Work Requirements Don’t Cut Poverty, Evidence Shows” (Washington: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016), available at
  103. Bryce Covert, “Paperwork Keeps People Poor,” The Nation, November 29, 2021, available at
  104. Romig, “After Years of Underinvestment, It’s Time to Rebuild the Social Security Administration”; Acosta and Gartland, “Families Wait Years for Housing Vouchers Due to Inadequate Funding”; Trager, “Staffing shortages possibly to blame for ‘abhorrent’ food stamp call center wait times.”
  105. Goodman, “Talk Policy: Administrative Burdens with Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan [Transcript].”
  106. Elizabeth Bell and Kylie Smith, “Working Within a System of Administrative Burden: How Street-Level Bureaucrats’ Role Perceptions Shape Access to the Promise of Higher Education,” Administration & Society 54 (2) (2022): 167–211, available at
  107. Hipple and Gould-Werth, “Weak income support infrastructure harms U.S. workers and their families and constrains economic growth.”

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Justin Schweitzer

Former Policy Analyst

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