Our Opportunity to Build a More Equitable Government

Putting people first in a critical moment of transition

 

At 12 p.m. Eastern Standard Time today, the American people will witness an event that is a hallmark of our democracy: the transfer of power from one presidential administration to the next. Our country is in a dangerous and precarious moment—with a surging pandemic, devastating economic crisis, unceasing examples of injustice against Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, and attacks on democracy itself. Our government is facing challenges at a scale we haven’t seen since the Civil War and new leadership must be ready to meet this moment.

Yet, despite the darkness, there are many reasons to find hope.

For the first time in my career as a public servant, we are seeing an openness to making systemic changes in government programs and the way government operates, because of the effects of the pandemic and because of hard truths that we can no longer ignore.

We’re also having critical conversations about the need to bring new perspectives into government, prioritizing racial equity and lived experiences. And we’re seeing a real sense of urgency, with unprecedented public health and economic challenges and new leadership coming in to address them, ushered in by the largest electorate in history.

I joined Code for America last year because I believe in the power of human-centered design and technology to enable an equitable, resilient government that truly cares for everyone, in all corners of the country. I believe that in this moment of presidential leadership transition, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way our government serves the people it represents.

It’s a time of tremendous opportunity, if we get it right.

How we act now matters for what kind of government and country we’ll have for generations to come.

We must focus on helping the most marginalized communities in our country, who are the most likely to be harmed by a public health crisis, a cratering economy, and a society that is marred by racial injustice. We’re encouraged to see that two of the top priorities of the incoming Biden-Harris administration—economic recovery and racial equity—tie directly to Code for America’s work.

That’s why we want to share some top priorities across the issues we work on every day that will be critical to our nation’s rebuilding and recovery process:

Social safety net

 

Make it easier for people in America to access food assistance and health coverage by modernizing the online enrollment processes.

There are many barriers in place that make applying, renewing, and managing SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid benefits difficult to complete online. Rules carried over from in-person enrollment create unnecessary burdens when applying or renewing online, such as mandated interviews and overbearing paper documentation requirements. These mandates can be eliminated and replaced by making online enrollment easier and faster—while reducing administrative cost. We can also encourage or require states to streamline or automate Medicaid, SNAP, and WIC enrollment and renewals and incentivize adoption of continuous eligibility policies. The Biden campaign proposed extensive use of automatic Medicaid enrollment for people with low-incomes and integrating multiple benefits. We recommend immediately building on existing authorities to lower barriers to health coverage and food assistance, and create modern pathways forward. Funding and technical support to improve online SNAP enrollment (like SMS and digital client communication) should be increased, with ongoing evaluation of outcomes.

Increase SNAP benefits and maximize assistance to help people meet basic needs.

As we have seen firsthand—and as research has shown for decades—SNAP food assistance has a large, positive impact on the lives of people working hard to make ends meet. The reach and efficacy of SNAP benefits should be maximized in every possible way. First, SNAP benefit levels should be increased beyond the public health emergency, as monthly benefits are exhausted by most households within days. Our current crisis also created new pathways for aid that should be improved and made permanent: Pandemic EBT for Children prevented child hunger during school closures and should be extended into a permanent Summer EBT program. The SNAP online purchasing pilot that allows people to safely order groceries should also be made permanent. Lastly, we can make the system work better for everyone by removing targeted exclusions, like the Public Charge rule for immigrants and work requirements for students and adults. These exclusions have racist origins, are complex and costly to administer, and restrict our nation’s ability to enact automatic stabilizers during recessions.

Measure success by how effectively programs are helping people.

It is long past time to update and align the federal poverty measures utilized for medical, food, and cash assistance to account for the real cost of living. Then, we must implement federal funding and accountability measures that incentivize states to achieve efficient and compassionate administration of federal safety net programs. The current delivery of SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF benefits is measured by compliance to administrative metrics that can disincentivize people-centered innovation. A new framework of federal funding with metrics and incentives can transform our social safety net to meet people where they are and ensure no one is left behind. Policy, technology, and program implementation should be aligned towards common goals, and evaluate gaps in service by geography, race, language, age, and family status. Funding incentives can reward efficient enrollment and drive improvements that reduce disparities, eliminate denials or loss of benefits due to procedural complications.

Tax benefits

 

Promote economic justice by helping marginalized people access tax benefits.

Tax benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Economic Impact Payments (aka stimulus checks) can go a long way in helping people achieve some degree of financial stability, but far too many are not accessing the flexible cash that they’ve earned. Government should further leverage the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program’s deep expertise to reach families in the EITC participation gap and expand EITC access to immigrant households.

Reduce barriers to tax filing.

Individuals and families with low incomes face enormous obstacles to successfully filing their taxes, from requiring them to produce original documents, to mandatory in-person appointments, to difficult-to-understand requirements. A few quick policy fixes could go a long way to improving outcomes: Maintaining flexible ID verification rules for the 2021 tax season would reduce the number of people who are blocked from filing because of stringent ID verification rules. Flexibility in standard VITA processes would streamline the process. Allowing VITA to access client documents that the IRS already has access to would enable many who are currently excluded to access the cash they are already entitled to.

Ensure equitable access to free tax prep software.

It is critical to safely reach as many communities as possible during this time. The remote use of Taxslayer’s Facilitated Self Assistance software for online tax filing was an important driver of successful tax filing and EITC claims in 2020. It will be essential to continue remote access as social distance protocols remain and more families fall into poverty.

Criminal justice reform

 

Encourage state governments to adopt automatic record clearance policies.

The historic Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 brought widespread calls to reimagine the criminal legal system and reckon with the harms it has already caused—including the fact that one in three people in this country has some type of criminal record. By leveraging technology and digital services, every state in the country has the potential to dramatically improve its record clearance process to reach everyone who is eligible and remove barriers to opportunity.

New policies should make record relief automatic for people, while expanding eligibility and streamlining the process for government and communities alike. The Federal Government can establish federal funding mechanisms to incentivize states to adopt and implement these systems. These records disproportionately and systematically harm Black communities and other communities of color, burdening people long after their official sentences end and preventing them from moving forward in their lives. They make it much harder to get decent jobs, stable housing, better education, and more. In short, a record can—and often does—become a life sentence to poverty.


We’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time at Code for America.

For more than a decade, we’ve been focused on partnering with governments to rethink and reimagine the way government serves the public.

As we enter 2021, we’re energized by this moment of new leadership and conviction to address some of our society’s toughest challenges—including those that were there long before the pandemic.

We stand at the ready to help governments at all levels help the American people in a human-centered, equitable, and outcomes-oriented way.