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Modernizing Public Benefit Eligibility During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Long-Term Lessons and Short-Term Recommendations

By Stan Dorn,


The novel coronavirus has triggering the worst public health emergency in a century and the deepest economic collapse since the 1930s. Millions of middle-class families in America are thus seeking public benefits to meet their basic human needs. But they are frequently encountering daunting barriers to obtaining essential assistance.

Media accounts profile the frustrations of eligible applicants attempting to obtain unemployment insurance, relief checks from the IRS, loans from the Small Business Administration, food for hungry children, and more. A key recurring theme involves the problems created by public benefit programs’ failure to modernize. Done properly, such modernization can use information technology and behavioral science to help eligible people obtain aid while lowering operating costs and improving the accuracy of eligibility outcomes, including by preventing procedural glitches from denying benefits to those who qualify.

For the long term, the coronavirus crisis teaches important lessons about how to improve eligibility systems and rules. In the short term, policymakers must take several steps to help public benefit programs meet enormous demands for help while facing likely shortages of necessary administrative resources.

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