Welfare Square could be a model for the national welfare system
After months of debate, President Joe Biden’s $ 1.75 trillion investment in human infrastructure – reduced from the $ 3.5 trillion proposed – has passed in the House of Representatives. He is now moving to the Senate, where he is likely to be reduced further.
Massive new investments can only improve lives if we put the benefits in the hands of the people who need them, right? This is not happening now.
Take the example of a single mother of three living in Santa Clara, Utah, working full time for $ 24,000 a year. She may be eligible for up to 22 federal and state benefits but, like many Americans, may never access all of them.
She would have to go to four buildings, spread over 10 miles, to access some of the services. And it’s no better in Champaign County, Illinois, where we write, with four buildings over 7 miles.
Americans can view Benefits.gov online, but the website is cumbersome and sometimes inaccurate. Understanding things online also requires reliable internet access, which 21 million Americans still don’t have. Sure, the $ 65 billion for broadband access in the new $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will come in handy over the next decade, but the needs are great now.
Because government benefits are so complicated, people fall through the cracks. Before COVID-19, less than one in four children eligible for child care benefits received it. Rural Americans, the elderly and people of color are not as likely to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. And 8.8 million people eligible for Medicaid are not enrolled, 60% of whom are minorities.
Often people are unaware that they are entitled to benefits, or when they do, they find it difficult to afford free time, childcare, or transportation to multiple agencies during times. Business hours.
People cannot navigate these services on their own.
The government should look to Welfare Square in downtown Salt Lake City, a historic place to help those in need. The federal government and states should create benefit repositories: one-stop shops to access government benefits efficiently and easily. These depots would provide a physical place where people could access the services they need. They would host all the programs, with a skilled employee to guide citizens through the services – such as a personal purchaser for government benefits.
COVID-19 has pushed us to innovate. Takeout has become more prevalent and accessible thanks to Uber Eats and other services. If Uber can do it, so can governments. The mobilization of services and the pooling of resources are not new concepts.
Like Welfare Square, which is accessible by public transport, benefit depots should be centrally located in easily accessible places where people congregate: next to bus stops, places of worship, post offices, stores or food banks. And they can be strategically located in historically underserved areas to better serve those in need.
The government could deploy a fleet of mobile depots – call them the Benefits Buses – to serve harder-to-reach groups such as the homeless or rural communities.
Other countries have understood this. Service Canada provides a single point of access to government services such as Old Age Security, Employment Insurance, Canada Pension Plan and passports. Canadians browse a single website or make a phone call to access all government benefits. There are also in-person points of service, visited by more than 33,625 Canadians every day who report an 83% satisfaction rate.
Of course, things are more difficult in the United States, in part because social safety net programs are administered at the state level. But that is why states should play a key role. Models exist.
Aging and Disability Resource Centers in Wisconsin provide a physical place for people to access and learn about the services they are entitled to in a maze of programs. It makes sense to focus expertise on the available safety nets.
Some states like Illinois take a No Wrong Door approach, which means residents can walk into any agency and ask for help. But, benefit policies require extensive expertise, so workers in the motor vehicle department may be just as confused about Medicare benefits as the person seeking help. To be effective, a benefits repository must be staffed with experts.
The federal government recognized this recently. Parents raising children now receive Parentage Navigators to guide them through complex programs and benefits.
In 2019, Chicago Mobile City Hall came to parks and schools to serve residents who need things like pet licenses and parking permits. Helping people comply with regulations benefits the city.
Private entities understand their personal interest in connecting people to benefits. Hundreds of hospitals and healthcare organizations sponsor forensic partnerships to help people access housing or child support.
Creating benefit deposits will cost money. But investing in assistance to access benefits ultimately saves money on health and social spending across the board. And ultimately, it saves lives. Benefits such as social security, health insurance and unemployment insurance are mostly already paid. If they are not claimed, the government is wasting money. Even in today’s fractured America, no one wants to do this.
America already spends $ 4 trillion on social support, five times more than on the military. Widening safety nets through new investments – without consciously working to connect people to the services and benefits provided – raises reasonable fears about a bloated and inefficient government and the risk of wasting resources.
Single points of access for government services will build trust in government, which is rare in America. In 2020, only 36% of Americans said they felt the federal government was doing a good job helping people lift themselves out of poverty.
Placing government benefits in the hands of those in need takes a common sense approach, centralizing help for those who may have difficulty finding it. Taking care of connecting people to government ensures that the giant investment we all make in human capital really does good.
Robin Fretwell Wilson holds the Mildred Van Voorhis Jones Chair of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law and is a member of Public Voices with The OpEd Project. Elsa Zawedde is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois College of Law and Becca Valek is a policy intern at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.