The U.S. has a long-acknowledged problem of poverty and inherited economic disadvantage — though not for lack of policy interventions. Its social safety net is expansive, encompassing multiple schemes including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or "food stamps"), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and numerous other subsidies to help pay for child care, housing, energy and more. All told, such programs receive more than $1 trillion in federal spending annually.
Yet they're much less effective than they should be. That's partly because many individual policies are poorly designed or not fully funded by Congress. But the system's overall complexity is also to blame. It makes benefits costly to administer and harder to navigate for many of those who're eligible for help. According to a new study, less than half of the promised support from seven big antipoverty programs makes its way to the people intended to get it. Steps to remedy this failure should be a priority.
Researchers at the Urban Institute measured payments through Supplemental Security Income; SNAP; TANF; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; Child Care and Development Fund subsidies; the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program; and public and subsidized housing. They found a remarkable shortfall: If each of these programs were fully funded and 100% of eligible beneficiaries participated, payments would double, from $220 billion a year to $447 billion. That would be enough to cut the poverty rate from 14.7% to 10.1%, and child poverty from 15.2% to 8.5%.
Ideally, the whole system would be taken back to the drawing-board and made simpler and internally consistent, with particular attention to the inadvertent interactions of various federal and state-run programs. For now, there's little hope of any such overhaul. But progress is still possible, if Washington works with state and city governments to make improvements based on best practices.
As a start, technology should be used to simplify applying for benefits and getting them renewed. Many low-income households have smartphones but no personal computer, so mobile-friendly applications (with the ability to upload documents as photos) would help. Agencies could use text messages to tell existing beneficiaries when they need to act to maintain their coverage — an obvious step that's far from universal. Joint applications, which let beneficiaries enroll in various programs through one streamlined process, would also boost participation. (Illinois, for example, helps applicants sign up for SNAP, Medicaid and various other supports through a single portal.) Short of that, referrals to other programs should be more widely automated, since eligibility for one form of support often indicates eligibility for others.
Admittedly, such steps are workarounds for a system that's far too fragmented and, as a result, less effective than it should be. It will take sustained effort and comprehensive reform to get participation close to 100% and make further strides in fighting poverty. But better management, a more user-centric approach and smarter use of technology would be a good start.