By Abigail Alcala

Political support of safety net and welfare programs in the United States has dwindled over the past few decades, with increasing sentiment that means-tested programs should be limited and conditional on certain behavioral requirements. For example, recent negotiations over the debt ceiling included discussions on increasing work requirements for certain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. SNAP provides monthly food assistance support for low-income people. Despite this political negotiation to increase the stringency of program requirements, uptake of the program by eligible individuals is only around 80 percent and is far lower for those above the poverty line and older adults (Vigil, 2021).

Administrative burdens are the costs and barriers experienced by individuals to access government services. These can be especially high with welfare programs and cause significant issues because the target populations of these programs are often very vulnerable. In some cases, technology can alleviate the burdens, by making information and access to government services more accessible. However, it is possible that technology adds more burdens for other groups.

Past research has shown that the more knowledge citizens have about programs, the more likely they are to participate (Nam et al., 2014). Further, having varying sources and methods to learn about the programs helps to provide a deeper understanding and competency in navigating the social programs (McCormick et al., 2002). This issue also greatly affects citizens’ trust in government as it alters their view of the government’s ability to provide necessary services to people. In addition, limited dissemination of program information impacts public awareness and thus hinders program access and heightens misinformation (Meyer et al., 2007). Further research on this subject is vital as it can provide ideas on reducing administrative burden and improving access to social services for those who most need them.

In a recent study by the Policy Lab’s Digital Equity team, Dr. Gregory Porumbescu, Dr. Stephanie Walsh, and Dr. Andrea Hetling, explore the relationship between administrative burdens and trust in social programs. Through a survey experiment of over 1,600 New Jersey residents, they tested how three different communication methods delivering information about SNAP eligibility affect public opinion of the program.  These conditions included a flyer, a screening questionnaire, a video walking through the questionnaire, and a control group that only received a brief explanation of SNAP. The results offer insight into how citizens respond to government efforts to use technology to improve program comprehension. This paper will be presented at Utrecht’s 2023 Public Management Research Conference as part of a panel entitled “Managing and Organizing for Enhancing and Rebuilding Trust in Government Agencies.”

Abigail Alcala is a second-year graduate student in the Master of Public Policy program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.