Lisa Ventura is a housing case manager by day, but for years she’s also been her family’s unofficial social worker by night. Lisa was just a kid when she learned to help her Spanish-speaking mother navigate the welfare system. It was a struggle, but she could handle it. But she wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like when her isolated father lost his job during the pandemic and needed her help filing for unemployment. Battling the bureaucracy during Covid on top of a troubled family history takes its toll.
What Lisa experienced firsthand is what experts call “administrative burden,” the mountain of paperwork and forms we all have to fill out—but like many burdens, this one falls disproportionately on those already experiencing financial hardship. On this week’s episode of the Going for Broke podcast, Ray Suarez also talks to Pamela Herd, professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, and coauthor of the book Administrative Burden: Policy-Making by Other Means.
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Ray Suarez: From the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, this is Going for Broke: Stories of people living through tough times and conversations about solutions that give us hope. I’m Ray Suarez.
Today, we’re going to talk about the exhausting red tape we go through to extract what we need from the government. Experts call it, administrative burden. Lisa Ventura knows all about it. She’s a case manager for clients in supportive housing in New York City but her skills at battling bureaucracy go way back.
Lisa Ventura: My mother’s been my client since I was like 8 years old. If I could be completely honest. I’ve been filling out paperwork since I learned how to write.
Ray Suarez: Lisa’s family is from the Dominican Republic. Helping her Spanish-speaking mom navigate the welfare system came naturally to her. But over time, this kind of unofficial social work can take its toll. Lisa felt that acutely during the pandemic when she got a call from her estranged father. He’d lost his job and needed help filing for unemployment.
Lisa Ventura: So already, this was another client that I was adding to my caseload, pretty much. I didn’t want to do it. It was another thing that I had to worry about. But I know that my dad has this temper which if things don’t get done right away, he’ll get angry. So I figured, eventually I was going to have to do it because he was going to get angry and then we were going to argue and we were just not going to be in a good place.
Ray Suarez: Many of us are doing this invisible work, filling out all these forms to get money for our kids and our parents just to survive. The applications are crazy. In a few minutes, we’ll speak to an expert about promising steps to cut through this kind of bureaucracy. But first, let’s hear Lisa Ventura’s story about her father. It was early in the pandemic and he had been furloughed from his job as a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership.
Lisa Ventura: Yeah, he just called and said, “Hey, they sent me home from work. They said I need to file for unemployment. Can you go in and check that? Also, here, I’m going to send you all the paperwork. I’m going to send you pictures of all the paperwork they gave me at work. Take a look at it.” And so I just took a deep breath. I took a deep breath. I was like, ugh, here we go.
Ray Suarez: The call could not have come at a worse time. Lockdown had just started. Lisa’s work had gone remote. Her kids were home from school, her husband was working 13-hour shifts. The pressure felt intense.
Lisa Ventura: I was in the middle of warming up food, typing up progress notes, trying to catch up and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t look at it right away.
Ray Suarez: But it wasn’t just pandemic stress that made Lisa balk. There was a history to contend with. Her father walked out when she was 5 years old. He had let her down over and over.
Lisa Ventura: Sometimes he’s been really generous. But as a kid, all I ever wanted was the time, his presence. I wanted him to be there. At graduation, I wanted to see him there. At any of my birthday parties, I wanted to see him there. And he was saying he would be there, he would just flake or there was always something that kept him from showing up.
Ray Suarez: That was the backdrop. When her dad called, she had no desire to help him.
Lisa Ventura: Because when I was younger, he wasn’t there. Anytime that I wanted him there, he wasn’t there. He just wasn’t present for me and I didn’t feel like I had to do anything for him.
Ray Suarez: But Lisa knew her Dominican father couldn’t fill the forms out by himself. His English wasn’t fluent.
Lisa Ventura: Even if you sent the documents in Spanish, everything needed to be done online so you need to have a computer. And you need to know how to navigate a computer. You need to have an e-mail address.
Ray Suarez: It made sense that the job would fall to Lisa. She had the skills. She’d been independent and focused ever since she was little.
Lisa Ventura: I’ve just been working hard since I was a kid. I got my first job when I was 13. My mom was on public assistance so there wasn’t much to go around for all of us. Going away to college was always a dream, so I made sure to work really hard to do that. Buying a home was always a dream, so I worked hard to do that. My mom didn’t get to do any of the things that I’ve done or that I’m doing and she had me at a really young age. She had me at 19 too. So she kind of gave up her youth to be a mom. So I’m very grateful for all the sacrifices that she made, the sacrificed that my grandmother made to bring my mom here and my great-grandmother who was the first one to migrate from the Dominican Republic. I got to enjoy what I have now because of the sacrifices that they made.
Ray Suarez: Lisa’s 36 now. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. But she still visits her old neighborhood in Manhattan.
Lisa Ventura: This is the Heights, as we call it. This is where I grew up and this is, currently we’re on 189th Street and St. Nicholas, but we’re going to turn left so that we could walk towards my elementary school. This is where we used to come lunch, just run around and play around.
Ray Suarez: Further down the street, Lisa sits on a park bench and reflects on what happened during the pandemic. It took her a few days to come around, but she eventually did file her father’s unemployment form.
Lisa Ventura: The process of filling out all that paperwork was just so annoying. And then I did it and it became a weekly thing, every Sunday. I knew I had to file so that he wouldn’t lose his benefits. Then it was also like, Lisa, if you don’t do this for him, who else is going to do this for him? You’re his daughter. Regardless of what happened in the past, he’s your dad. And then this is also just me learning how to forgive. My dad’s been a hard-working man all his life so he never needed my help in that way. But this is a reality for a lot of immigrant families. They come from a different country, and in order to survive, they have to go into the welfare system. And they need people like us to be able to help them navigate because they don’t have the skills for it.
Ray Suarez: Lisa has always kept a journal but she began to write more seriously during the pandemic. She published an essay in Slate about her father. It was an exciting time. But then she felt guilty because knew she’d left out part of the story.
Lisa Ventura: I felt really bad after the piece came out because it kind of put my dad in a negative light. But, ironically enough, I feel that I think I needed to get that out because it’s just a narrative that I kept playing in my head like, oh he was never there, he was never there, he was never there, he was never there. But he’s been around. He didn’t completely disappear. Especially after my brother passed, I guess that changed something for him and he became a lot more present in my life. He would call more often, he would come around more often. So I think I needed to write it to realize that hey, that’s not the story anymore. He’s around. He calls you. He comes. He visits. He stays at your house.
Ray Suarez: Lisa’s brother died by suicide when he was 16. She was in her first semester of college.
Lisa Ventura: The most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me was losing my brother. Deep down, my biggest fear is something like that happening to my sons. Or me not being able to see a sign and not be able to give them the tools or the help or whatever it is that they may need. Because, you know, when suicide happens, you’re like, but what happened?
This is my building. Oh, it’s open.
Ray Suarez: Lisa’s mother still lives in the apartment on Fort George Avenue where Lisa grew up.
Lisa Ventura: Oh, you need to be careful with this step right here because it’s different and it’s higher than all the others and everyone always trips. Oh, we have a puppy, too. [Doorbell rings.] Hello.
Ray Suarez: Hello.
Ray Suarez: Just inside the apartment, photos of Lisa’s late brother, Arturo, hang in the entryway.
Lisa Ventura: So this is my brother’s altar that my mom has set up and she always keeps fresh flowers and a candle and these are trophies that he won either for basketball…
[Lisa’s mother speaks to us in Spanish.]
Lisa Ventura: She says that she’s in the process of just letting him rest. We always talk about him, we always keep his memory alive. We always remember him and that’s how she chooses to honor him. And I guess she wanted him to be at peace. Yeah.
Ray Suarez: Lisa’s mother has sought peace with Lisa’s father, as well. They’re friends now. And Lisa’s resentment towards her dad continues to soften as she learns more about him and his early days back in the Dominican Republic.
Lisa Ventura: He’s been working since he was like, 12 years old. He’s the second-youngest of like 12 siblings. It seems like they had a rough upbringing. He hasn’t really had much of a childhood. So he doesn’t know how to show up that way for me or for any of his grandchildren.
I have this desire to break some sort of cycle for my children. Both my husband and I grew up with non-present fathers. So we try our very best to be as present and loving and nurturing and available for our children. Because we know what it feels like to not have that.
So we have my husband, Emmanuel, who was the gracious chef for us. [Emmanuel laughs.] We have my mom. We have the boys, Devan and Darius and Hershey. [Voices of the boys.]
Ray Suarez: Thanks to Lisa Ventura for sharing her story. You can read her essay, “When My Father Called Me About His Unemployment” at Economichardship.org. Thanks also to the Bold Voices Collaborative and an important message before we go on. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.
Ray Suarez: Joining me now is Pamela Herd, professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, and coauthor of the book, Administrative Burden: Policy-Making by Other Means.
Well, professor, you heard Lisa Ventura’s story. Like a lot of us, she had a whole lot on her plate. But here, the interesting wrinkle is that having to face up to the bureaucracy to get the things you need. What is administrative burden?
Pamela Herd: So administrative burden are the hassles and hurdles that we encounter when we try to access basic government benefits which you’re eligible for and I think as we saw in the pandemic that people really need to get by and survive on a daily basis to have enough to eat, to be able to pay your rent.
The other thing that Lisa’s story points out is that these costs aren’t simply financial, whether or not you have enough money. They can deeply psychological. The stress, the frustration, the fear, of not being able to access benefits that we desperately need, it holds a really high cost on people. And I think that’s one thing that we don’t acknowledge enough when we look at the problems with these kind of burdens and barriers.
Ray Suarez: Does the administrative burden fall equally on all Americans? I mean I’m sure people can tell you horror stories about the DMV, horror stories about having to sign up for health insurance or insuring their car. What’s different about the way that it falls on different Americans?
Pamela Herd: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean we can all relate to the concept, as you point out. But some Americans are just more likely to encounter it than others. And particularly, people who live at lower income levels, who tend to be eligible for programs like Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamp benefits. Those programs in particular tend to have a lot of these burdens built into them.
Pamela Herd: Broadly, when we look at a lot of our social welfare programs, somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps don’t receive food stamps. In large part, because of these bureaucratic obstacles. We know that this is a huge issue with unemployment insurance. There are some states where I see upwards to 20 to 30 percent of eligible populations not receiving access to basic health insurance. It has profound implications. One striking example, actually, was in Tennessee. They kicked nearly 200,000 children off of the Medicaid program simply because people had made paperwork errors. Two hundred thousand children lost access to health insurance because they’d made paperwork errors.
Ray Suarez: Well, one of the phrases that you hear constantly in debates over access to these programs is waste, fraud, and abuse.
Audio from news broadcast 1: …called the CARES Act was passed with multiple overlapping accountability mechanisms designed to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
Audio from news broadcast 2: Fox 11 investigates tonight and it’s the case of a Marionette man who is behind bars after he was convicted of lying to get welfare benefits. His story—
Audio from news broadcast 3: …billion dollars a year. But attorney, Todd Spodeck, says food stamps are riddled with fraud.
Ray Suarez: There’s a kind of suspicion of anybody who needs the help. Could we create systems that are easier to encounter and still make sure that people who are eligible for the benefit get it and people who are ineligible don’t?
Pamela Herd: Yes. So, for example, in many social welfare programs, we do have people sometimes either getting benefits that they shouldn’t. But most of the time, it’s because of a mistake. Moreover, on average, we see far more people not getting access to programs for which they’re eligible than we see the reverse. There was a much more profound issue with people not getting access to benefits for which they’re eligible for than there is an issue of fraud and abuse in programs.
Moreover, yeah, we absolutely can do this. So I like to point to Social Security as an example of this.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 14, 1935: This Social Security measure gives at least some protection to 50 millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old age pensions and…
Pamela Herd: Social Security retirement benefits are one of the easiest programs you can imagine in terms of navigating. They’re not easy because the benefit eligibility, the earnings … Like, the actual administrative burden is large. It’s just that the state took responsibility for it; government took responsibility for it. So you don’t have to walk into an office with 40 years of your earnings records and sit down with a case worker and document that to figure out whether you’re eligible and what your benefit level should be. The government tracks it for you.
And one of the reasons that they designed the system that way in the late 1930s was basically because they felt it would lead to less fraud. That if they did that instead of, at the time what they had thought about was giving people stamp booklets and you’d get little stamps every year to document your earnings. What they realized was, wow, this is… There will be much less fraud.
So yeah, absolutely. If we can more heavily with a lot of these benefit systems draw on existing data that the government has to figure out things like eligibility and document that eligibility, that will both lead to more people accessing those benefits who are supposed to, as well as less fraud.
Ray Suarez: Now, in the story we just heard of Lisa Ventura, her father was having trouble because of his lack of English language proficiency. And he was lucky—he had a daughter who knows how to navigate the system, which not everybody does. But is the fix just as simple as translating materials into other languages? Or is it more than that?
Pamela Herd: It’s typically more than that. So especially for a program like unemployment insurance, that was a very special situation in a sense that his daughter had this enormous experience providing access to a lot of different programs in the context of her job. This was her job, literally, to help people figure out how to navigate bureaucratic systems. And she even talked about, right? Every week she had to be in there documenting different things so that he could keep receiving his unemployment insurance. So unfortunately, it’s normally not enough to do things like just translate from Spanish to English because the requirements, the generic requirements, are really much broader than that.
There’s two ways to think about solutions. One, we start asking government to just draw on the data it already has to do this rather than asking people to provide it. There’s ways in which we can simplify administrative processes. The other way is you figure out ways to provide more people with hands-on help to navigate complicated systems.
Ray Suarez: Does some of this problem stem from a sort of core belief, if you will, a given at the beginning of the problem, that assumes that people lie? That we’re entering into this negotiation, that we enter into this encounter already trying to sniff out who’s lying to us. Catch the people who are trying to do something dishonest rather than find the people who need help.
Pamela Herd: Yeah. I mean sort of what I said earlier about who we think of as deserving and undeserving. These kinds of barriers really do tend to be more common in programs targeted at poor Americans. And we just have a long history of thinking that people are poor because it’s their fault and because they’ve done something wrong.
President Ronald Reagan in archival audio: I’m afraid that several members of Congress have suggested some proposals that while claiming to require work-related activities, would make staying on welfare more attractive. Their misguided compassion would only bring more people into the welfare system, encourage them to stay on the welfare roles longer, and discourage work.
Pamela Herd: For those kinds of reasons, we also tend to assume that folks are going to be more likely to try to cheat themselves into benefits. Now, to be clear, there’s very little evidence that that’s actually true. But as you’re asking, I absolutely do think those are the attitudes that help shape why we have more burdens in some programs than in others.
Ray Suarez: Is that kind of conception of our fellow citizens leaching into other parts of our society? I wonder if I’m hearing that same kind of idea in all the new burdens to voting, for instance? Or registering to vote. Or proving you’re you when you show up at the polls.
Pamela Herd: Well, some of it is politics. So one of the things about using burdens is that it can be a political tool. So it’s not that… I mean, we know people aren’t, for example, committing fraud when they try to go vote. It’s incredibly rare. And I think we have a lot of evidence that the reason that we’re putting a lot of burdens in place to prevent people from voting are political in origin.
Ray Suarez: Is there anything, when you look at this landscape, that gives you hope? Anything that we’ve learned in recent years that we might be able to incorporate into the design of how people interact with government?
Pamela Herd: Yeah. Actually, there is. I mean, there’s a ton of attention among those of us who study social welfare policies and policies more broadly that we have to address these issues. That we have to come up with better design, better implementation, better administration. So there have been a lot of actually changes to programs over the last five years that have improved this. Within the SNAP program, for example, the food stamp program, they’ve made a lot of changes that have made the program a lot more accessible.
And more generally, what I would say, is that one of the things that happened with the pandemic is that many people who had not been exposed to this kind of burden were exposed to it. So with all kinds of people, all at once, applying for emergency assistance, emergency unemployment. And they saw what this was like in practice. It’s one thing to sort of stand back and say, “Well, I’m sure it seems a little hard.” It’s another thing to actually encounter those burdens yourself.
Ray Suarez: But at this point, we have to cross our fingers and hope that those people who saw just how hard it was have a change of heart and push on their end as voters, as people who have influence, to actually get a change in policy. Rather than saying, “Whew, glad that’s over! Glad I can go back to work and not have to do this anymore.” And let the people who are immersed in that world remain there.
Pamela Herd: Yeah, that’s 100 percent right. And the politics of all this are always quite complicated. I would just say though, from my perspective as someone who’s been watching this for the last 20 years, there just is a lot more attention to this in policy circles around the design of the child tax credit. There was a lot of discussion about how do we make this easier for people to access? I do genuinely feel like there has been just a lot of attention to it.
The Biden administration has actually issued directives around reducing administrative burden in federal programs that came out of the office of management and budget. So it’s actually a priority of the Biden administration. So there’s a lot that you can do. One of the nice things about administrative burden is it doesn’t necessarily require policy change. It doesn’t necessarily require congressional action. The executive branch at the federal level and even at the state level, state executive branches, can do a ton to reduce burden.
Ray Suarez: Professor, thanks a lot for taking the time to explain this all to us.
Pamela Herd: Well, thank you for having me.
Ray Suarez: Pamela Herd is coauthor of the book Administrative Burden and a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
Going for Broke comes to you from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation. Our producer is Jeb Sharp. Mixing and sound design by Tina Tobey Mack. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and David Wallace. Frank Reynolds is multimedia editor at The Nation. The Nation’s editor is D.D. Guttenplan. I’m Ray Suarez, thanks for listening. Please tell your friends about us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit thenation.com/podcasts to learn more. Sign up for EHRP’s newsletter at Econimichardship.org.