By Andrea Hetling and Abigail Alcala

Administrative burdens are the costs and barriers individuals face when accessing government services. Such burdens are one reason why low-income families, who often need the most support from public sources, struggle with accessing safety net programs. Even among those who complete an application process successfully, burdens related to remaining in compliance with program rules can lead to interruptions in benefit receipt or elimination of support altogether.

New research speculates that some of these challenges may be addressed and resolved with the help of a digital credentialing system.[1] Such a system would include individual information such as income and family composition and link it to government benefit programs, greatly reducing the steps needed to apply for and remain in compliance with benefits. It could also improve knowledge about public benefit programs since outreach could be targeted to those who qualify. The intention is to facilitate easier, more consistent, and broader participation in critical safety net programs. Proponents also claim that participants’ data are more secure than with current systems and that programs are better protected against fraud. Others are concerned.[2]

One obvious drawback with this solution is that the system for digital credentials has yet to be designed and might take significant time and money to create and implement. Ensuring the design will work for individuals facing different situations, barriers, and safety needs poses additional challenges.

One such group to consider are survivors of domestic violence. Experiences of domestic violence and poverty are often deeply related and intertwined. In fact, poverty may be a primary factor preventing survivors from leaving their abusers, making safety net programs critically important for them. At the same time, however, requirements associated with program participation pose barriers for survivors, who often have a harder time finding and keeping employment due to physical injuries, mental health challenges, or sabotage efforts from their abusers.

The Family Violence Option (FVO), a provision in the welfare reform law, allows states to grant waivers to exempt survivors from specific requirements like work requirements. A recent study conducted in Michigan found that despite need, however, very few FVO waivers are granted, raising questions about the implementation of the policy.[3]

On one hand, the use of a digital credentialing system to reduce the compliance and learning costs associated with participating in welfare programs would be of great help to survivors. On the other hand, such a system may also serve as a barrier to participation for survivors, many of whom have valid reasons to be concerned about confidentiality of sensitive data. Survivors of abuse may not want to apply as they would not want to give away sensitive information regarding their residence and employment to a digital source designed to be easily accessible to multiple programs. Even with safeguards in place, if survivors do not know or understand the protections, they may still choose to forgo benefits. Based on the current low utilization of FVO waivers, concern seems warranted.

Like other forms of e-government, a digital credentialing system holds potential in transforming how people can access government services, but implementation and information should be guided with an eye towards meeting the needs of all potential participants, including those affected by domestic violence.



[1] Redesigning the welfare system for greater inclusivity and security. (2023, June 26). Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

[2] Meisenzahl, E. (2023). Can digital credentials boost enrollment in social welfare programs? The American Prospect.

[3] Hetling, A., & Nikolova, K. (n.d.). Work requirements don’t work for domestic violence survivors – but Michigan data shows they rarely get waivers they should receive for cash assistance. The Conversation.