When Complexity Isn’t a Subsidy


“Are You Good Enough at Paperwork to Be a Poor American?” asks the New York Times. The essay is an interesting and valuable read.

Most programs that make up the American social safety net have become simpler to navigate over time, with more requirements automated, eliminated or moved online. Participation rates today vary depending in part on how much work it takes to get and stay enrolled. Only about one in four qualifying families receive cash welfare, a number that has declined since work requirements were added in the 1990s, while about four in five eligible parents are enrolled in Medicaid, a program that has broadly become more accessible.

Now in an era of partisan gridlock in Congress, the tasks required of participants — “administrative burdens” embedded in each program — are an increasingly critical policy lever that can raise or lower the number of poor Americans in these programs.

“This is a political tool that is becoming more important at the federal level because Congress isn’t doing anything,” said Pamela Herd, a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University who has written a book with Donald Moynihan, also a Georgetown professor, on administrative burdens. “If you’re going to try to change stuff, especially in the executive branch, this is your best opportunity.”

There is a maxim in regulatory affairs holding that “complexity is a subsidy.” For example, the complexity of the tax code is a subsidy for big businesses that can afford to employ large teams of tax attorneys. Complexity in government is a subsidy for lobbyists and their employers, disadvantaging relatively small firms and upstarts that do not have, e.g., General Electric’s operation in Washington. Complexity in the legal system is a subsidy for lawyers and for people who can afford good lawyers, which is one of the reasons rich people so often enjoy better outcomes in criminal cases than poor people.

Complexity is a subsidy for bureaucracies, too, a way of offloading work from the bureaucrats onto the populations they are in theory intended to serve. That’s the DMV model of public service.

But often the populations bureaucracies are supposed to serve are not very well equipped to do the bureaucracies’ work for them. I know we’re supposed to studiously avoid such patronizing thoughts, but you don’t usually end up in a welfare office because you’re doing awesome at life right at that moment. Many of our social programs are explicitly directed at people with reduced capacities — children, sick people, old people, etc. Using bureaucratic complexity to keep the welfare rolls down is underhanded. It would be better to be more honest about our intentions.

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