Apps for the poor

by Wade Rathke

February 3, 2022

New Orleans    Decades ago, ACORN embarked on a pilot to increase the enrollment for families in San Antonio, New Orleans, and Miami in the Earned Tax Credit and Child Care Credit programs. We ran it as an organizing program in areas where we knew, based on demographic data and our own organizing experience, that there were way more eligible families under the income guidelines than were receiving the entitlements. We hit the doors and everything else hard in these areas and moved people into our offices in an intake system where we could sit them in front of a computer and sign them up. We had the support of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, but also had fought and won campaigns with tax preparers H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt, and Liberty, who also funded other cities as the program expanded as part of agreements ACORN negotiated with them. Doing their taxes, we had income information, so it didn’t take but a minute for us to realize with that information, if we had a program, we could also tell them where they might also benefit and help enroll them in other programs as well, developing what became the ACORN Service Centers. We saw this as maximum feasible eligibility for entitlements.

All of this is a long way around to Susie’s house to explain why I read intently anything that seems to be increasing access for lower income families to entitlement programs, like an article in the New York Times some weeks ago entitled, “Apps Aid Millions in Unlocking Government Aid.” The story largely focused on Jimmy Chen, a young tech entrepreneur, who founded something called Propel, and his claim that 5 million of the more than 42 million food stamp recipients are using his app on mobile phones. Explaining how he came to this path, Chen says “It’s just incredibly unfair that we don’t apply more of this sophisticated knowledge to the problems of lower-income Americans.” To that I say, right on, I couldn’t agree more.

Yet for all of these good intentions, it was impossible not to see the rough edge dragging, even as the article celebrated these achievements. The food stamp app was a boon to its users because it gave them real time information on their phones about where their accounts stood. That’s great, but as Chen admits, he came to this app when he was unable to develop an app that would help increase the enrollment and access to getting stamps themselves, and that’s the real problem. Other laudatory efforts that had streamlined the application process in California, Michigan and elsewhere had cut the length of the applications. In Michigan, the application went from 42 pages to 17 pages. That’s good, but 17 pages to get food stamps, still seems way too much, and once again, none of this gets people to the door and to the benefits, it just increases the odds, once they are in the office that they will survive the process. Don’t get me wrong, that’s huge. It’s just not enough.

Embedded in the piece was also a comment about the Propel app helping someone get a $50 savings on broadband, which is also wonderful, but that’s broadband for those families lucky enough to have computers. Many of these same families are on the other side of the digital divide, and it’s not something that is paying for the very mobile phone and data plan on which these apps are built.

As much as we should applaud these efforts, and I do, they can’t obscure the barriers that still exist, which are huge, expensive, and deliberate. Furthermore, they flow from an easy millennial assumption that their own ubiquitous use of mobile phones and a lifetime of acquired skills with these tools are universal. Applying for benefits, jobs, and any number of things on a regular phone, and I’m talking Android, because I don’t know or use Apple, is actually very hard. The screens are small. Fingers are big. Mistakes are easy. Do-overs are common. None of this is easy for families trying to access entitlements, pay taxes, apply for welfare, or much of anything.

Government needs to see this process as a public good, enabled everywhere with real people in multiple, accessible venues. There’s not an app for that, but it’s not that hard. Apps are great, but they aren’t going to achieve maximum feasible eligibility, it’s sad to say, but it can be done, if more are willing and enabled.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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