What is ‘administrative burden,’ and how does it affect people who need help with utility bills?

From waiting in line at the DMV to filling out paperwork to apply for food stamps, pretty much everyone will experience an administrative burden at some point in their lives. But what exactly is an administrative burden, and how does it prevent people from getting help when they need it?

Robin Turner, a resident of Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood, struggled for months to get assistance on her past-due utility bills. Photo by Michael Indriolo.

From waiting in line at the DMV to filling out paperwork to apply for food stamps, pretty much everyone will experience an administrative burden at some point in their lives.

But what exactly is an administrative burden, and how does it prevent people from getting help when they need it?

Donald Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., studies this problem.

Moynihan describes administrative burdens as the “hassles people experience” when dealing with government policies. Being asked to provide photos of your paycheck to get government assistance is one example, or being required to come to an in-person office visit to prove you’re a real person.

“Often when you ask someone about their experience with government, they’ll talk about some administrative barrier they’ve encountered: difficulty providing documents, or not getting someone on the phone,” he said.

Moynihan said the more roadblocks that go up, the harder it is for people to get, and stay on, what he calls “means-tested programs.”

Those are taxpayer-funded programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–or SNAP, also known as “food stamps”–that are only provided to low-income people, and require those people to prove their eligibility. Government officials often say these requirements, like providing birth certificates and copies of bills, are needed to root out fraud and make sure the people who need the help are receiving it.

But fraud in a program like SNAP – where somebody is receiving the benefit who isn’t eligible – is quite rare; less than 1% of benefits paid out, according to some estimates.

And Moynihan and other researchers argue that burdensome, repetitive eligibility hurdles are why these programs don’t have 100% participation. It’s important to mention that these programs are also funded by the tax dollars of the very people who need them the most.

According to Moynihan’s estimates, historically:

  • Roughly two-thirds of all people eligible for SNAP actually get those benefits.

  • Between 50% and 70% of people eligible for Medicaid receive it.

  • Between 30% and 60% of those eligible for unemployment insurance receive it.

Administrative burdens also impact people who fall behind on their utility bills.

There are programs to help: the federal Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), and Ohio’s Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). HEAP gives low-income people one-time assistance on their bill, and PIPP gives low-income people a recurring discount on electric and gas bills.

Michelle Graff, an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, studies administrative burdens in the HEAP program. She found that in Ohio, only 20-25% of people eligible for HEAP actually use that program.

Loophole after loophole

It’s not hard to find evidence of these administrative burdens at play locally when it comes to these utility-bill assistance programs.

Garfield Heights resident Janet Gill-Cooks scrolls through her phone, showing this reporter the emails she’s sent in her quest to find assistance for her utility bills. Photo by Conor Morris.

Robin Turner, who lives in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood, struggled for months to get an appointment with a local nonprofit that runs these programs. She had to submit documents several times, including pay stubs for everyone in her home and copies of her past due bills.

“When you go and ask for help, the system is intentionally set up so that they take people through all these loopholes and nothing ever happens,” she said

Eventually she did get an appointment, but only after receiving disconnection notices from her electric and gas providers.

Graff said document and appointment requirements are common administrative burdens, and HEAP is no different. There are some unique issues with HEAP, too. For one, if you’re a renter, and your bills aren’t in your own name, you’ll need your landlord’s permission to get help.

A solution from outside Ohio

Graff thinks she has found something that could ease these administrative burdens for Ohioans.

All states have a policy in place called “categorical eligibility.” This essentially means that when a person applies for a program like cash assistance (called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the state also determines whether they are eligible for other assistance programs, like food stamps. That means the person doesn’t have to go through the trouble of applying a second time or having to set up multiple appointments.

Graff found that a number of states also apply this “categorical eligibility” to HEAP, the energy bill assistance program. Ohio does not.

And from some preliminary research of states that did have this policy, Graff found something interesting.

“They ended up having higher program efficiency, so spending less on overhead costs, administration… that in turn led to more houses on average being assisted each year by (HEAP),” she said.

Moynihan, the Georgetown professor, said states and the federal government should consider how to combine applications to help reduce the headaches people face when applying for help.

He said it would also help for the government to map out where people are running into issues, through something called “journey mapping.” That’s a method by which people are interviewed about their experiences with something, and a visual map is created, based on those experiences.

The federal Office of Budget and Management recently created three such journey maps after doing lots of interviews across various federal agencies. Those maps showed where people ran into challenges while trying to get government assistance after a natural disaster, for example.

Moynihan said this method is a good way to help identify barriers, and start to break them down. He suggested the federal government and states use journey mapping as a tool to make it easier for people to get the benefits their tax dollars pay for.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project, and a continuing effort to report on the burden of water bills on low-income Clevelanders. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including The Land. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Email him at [email protected].

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