Sometimes barriers to aid are created deliberately. When Florida’s unemployment system proved unresponsive at the start of the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis told CBS Miami last year that his predecessor’s administration devised it to drive people away. “It was, ‘Let’s put as many kind of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, oh, the hell with it, I’m not going to do that,’” he said. (Mr. DeSantis and his predecessor, Rick Scott, are both Republicans.)
Other programs are hindered by inadequate staffing and technology simply because the poor people they serve lack political clout. Historically, administrative hurdles have been tools of racial discrimination. And federal oversight can instill caution because states risk greater penalties for aiding the ineligible than failing to help those who qualify.
To show that Michigan’s application was overly complex, Civilla essentially turned to theater, walking officials through an exhibit with fake clients and piped-in office sounds meant to trace an application’s bureaucratic journey. Working with the state, the company created a new application with 80 percent fewer words; the firm is now working in Missouri.
Michael Brennan, Civilla’s co-founder, emphasized that the Michigan work was bipartisan — it began under a Republican governor and continued under a Democrat — and saves time for the client and the state.
“Change is possible,” he said.
With its California portal, Code for America cut the time it took to apply for food stamps by three-quarters or more. The portal was optimized for mobile phones, which is how many poor people use the internet, and it offers chat functions in English, Spanish and Chinese. In counties with the technology, applications increased by 11 percent, while elsewhere the number fell slightly.
During the pandemic, Code for America built portals to help poor households claim stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit. The latter alone delivered nearly $400 million. David Newville, who oversaw the work, quoted a colleague to explain why web design matters: “Implementation is justice.”