U.S. Poverty Policy Is Outdated and Inefficient. Here’s a Better Approach.

All low-income Americans should be equipped with an Online HOPE (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) account.

U.S. poverty policy is stuck in a rut. In 2015, 43 million people in America were living in poverty – more than the combined populations of Texas, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska and 11 million more than in 2000.

Slow growth and inequality are the main culprits. But the outdated way we deliver social services – through ponderous, top-down bureaucracies and siloed programs – also hinders efforts by low-income Americans to rise out of poverty.

Economists often apply the term “opportunity costs” to high and middle-income people, meaning that the time they spend on one task is time not available to perform other, potentially more valuable tasks. But society rarely applies the concept to low-income people, acting as if their time is essentially worthless.

A selection of the documents needed to quality for SNAP.

While government safety net programs help tens of million Americans avoid starvation, homelessness, and other outcomes even more dreadful than everyday poverty, government anti-poverty aid is generally a major hassle to obtain and keep, supposedly to ensure that only “deserving” people get them. Congress, which creates the laws governing the programs, and most states and localities, which implement those laws, purposely make it extremely difficult to advertise these programs and enable families to access them. That’s why many low-income people are actually unaware of all the government benefits for which they are eligible, thereby reducing the amount of help going to Americans in need by tens of billions of dollars every year.  For instance, 17 percent of all people – and 28 percent of working people – eligible for SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) fail to receive them.

Even if low-income people do know about available aid, the journey to receive it is usually long, onerous, and time-consuming. They must travel to a bewildering array of government and nonprofit agencies to get different kinds of help. Even when people initially apply for benefits online, they often have to physically go to one or more government offices to follow up. They need to bring piles of paperwork to each office (for instance, you need to repeatedly prove your place of birth, even though that obviously never changes) usually with slightly different combinations of documents every time, and that paperwork is often lost by the agency, and then the applicants have to spend more time (and money) to make new copies. It’s no wonder that low-income Americans are often drained of hope.

It’s time for policymakers to discard the notion that “hassle” is the right way to ensure that only those people truly in need are the ones who access benefits. There is a better approach to poverty policy – one that is efficient and reaches everyone in need while at the same time encouraging personal responsibility.  This approach is to equip all low-income individuals in need with an Online HOPE (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) account and action plan that can help individuals both receive the benefits they need and build a long-term plan to lift themselves out of poverty in the long term.

Here’s how these accounts would work: The President and Congress would first authorize the federal Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development, (HUD), Treasury, and Agriculture (USDA), working together, to form public/private partnerships with banks, credit unions, and technology companies to create HOPE accounts and action plans for low-income individuals applying for aid. These accounts would combine improved technology, streamlined case management, and coordinated access to multiple to federal, state, city, and nonprofit programs that already exist. States and localities would initially be asked to participate in pilot projects implementing the accounts and plans, and, if they work, would be required over time to implement them universally.

Once the accounts and plans are in place, families would be able to use any smart phone, tablet, or computer to learn about the public and philanthropic programs for which they are eligible – including aid to improve health, nutrition, job training and placement, housing, income, etc. – and then apply for all of these programs at once from the convenience of their device. If supporting documents need to be submitted with the application, then families could take pictures of those documents and submit the pictures with the application. Such accounts would also be able to include any private savings that people are able to accrue. A surprising number of low-income people already have smart phones and/or home computers, not because they are luxuries, but because they are essential tools of learning and work in modern America.

Such accounts could slash the number of government employees required to shuffle paperwork in social service offices, thereby freeing up such employees for much higher priority work, such as aiding shut-in seniors, staffing job training centers, or boosting pre-K classes.

Enabling struggling families to save time and money is a good start, but that’s not enough. Low-income families still need clear aspirations for the future. That’s why families should be given the option of partnering in more depth with government and nonprofit organizations by voluntarily agreeing to long-term HOPE action plans that will provide more aid to each family and then specify exactly how all parties will work together to help the families earn, learn, and save better in order to ensure greater economic opportunity for themselves and their children. The idea behind the action plans is to ensure that all the programs and people involved are working together in a long-term, positive relationship for the purpose of ensuing upward mobility. Key to this idea is that the overall aid to each participating family would be increased; this concept should never be used by conservatives as an excuse to cut support.

For example, a single mother of two young children could voluntarily enter into a 10-year plan jointly with her city government’s social service agency and with a local United Way. The plan would include yearly benchmarks for how the mother would use increased resources provided to her family by the plan to boost her job skills, increase her earnings, improve the housing situation for her family, obtain more nutritious food, and begin to put money aside to help her children pay for college. Once the specific goals are set, the specific actions each entity would be required to take in order for the mother to meet her goals — as well as the money and other resources that will need to be allocated for these actions from the family, the government, and the nonprofit partners — would all be spelled out in the plan. Yes, the mother would need to work hard and sacrifice by saving more. But knowing that government and charities also had a stake and belief in her success, and knowing that she would ultimately advance herself and her family, she would likely be glad to do it.

Surely even in these divided times — a plan that slashes government bureaucracy, boosts long-term independence, and helps families escape poverty should be embraced by the right and the left.

Let’s use HOPE to both increase the bang-for-the-buck for taxpayers and reduce poverty. Tangible hope is the world’s most powerful motivator. Let’s make it work for all of us.

This op-ed is excerpted both from a paper for the Progressive Policy Institute and from Joel Berg’s forthcoming book, America, We Need to Talk: A Self-Help Book for the Nation, to be published by Seven Stories Press in February 2017.

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is CEO of the nonprofit group Hunger Free America.