A new executive order will put more digital services online with the goal of streamlining how people access them. But some experts warn that the move could create issues for impoverished and other disadvantaged communities.

Last month, 17 government agencies were told to “modernize” how they deliver dozens of critical services. The Biden administration said it hopes to reduce what it calls a “time tax” Americans pay to get things done.

The changes include letting Americans go online to renew their passports or apply for certain benefits instead of heading to local government offices. These efforts will build on the recent modernization of the Veterans Administration and some of its programs.

Moving forward, the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture and other agencies will begin to change how programs are accessed and services are delivered. The White House has promised to track and report transparently on how well the modernization efforts go.

Experts warn that while the effort to make services more readily available through technology has great promise, changes must be undertaken carefully so that they don’t further widen a well-recognized digital divide and put people who may lack access to technology or who don’t know how to use it at an even greater disadvantage.

“Making things easier on people applying for government assistance is a laudable goal. We do have some concerns. As you know, the devil is always in the details,” said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, which includes a food bank and thrift store, as well as staff that helps coordinate advocacy activities. 

“The first problem is that of the digital divide,” Bailey added. “Often when we facilitate the ability to do things online, we make it harder — or impossible — to do things in person or in actual writing. Many people try to get by on cellphones, but the forms are hard to complete on a phone.”

Others worry that the burden on the programs may increase.

“I’m generally in favor of streamlining benefit programs and utilizing technology, but there are downsides,” said Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow in poverty studies. “When I worked for New York City human services, we moved to an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application. People are much more likely to apply for SNAP when it is online, including those who are not eligible or who have no intention of following through. This created a lot of back-end work for the agency without much return — more work for these agencies requires more public money.”

Still, she sees a flipside, too. She said submitting documents and verifying information are activities that should all be electronic, as should benefit administration. People should be able to check their electronic benefit transfer balance online, which some places already do.

What the order would do

In a recent briefing call with reporters, Neera Tanden, one of President Joe Biden’s senior advisers, said that to streamline processes, the administration has looked at “the points of greatest friction for people with their government —  filing taxes, applying for Social Security benefits, waiting in TSA lines — and focused on ways to reduce that friction.”

In a White House release announcing the executive order, Biden called the move a “decisive action to promote fiscal stewardship.” He added, “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and can deliver for our people.”

The release said the order “creates a sustained cross-government service delivery process that aligns to the moments that matter most in people’s lives — like turning 65, having a child or applying for a small business loan.”

Here are some of the processes that the White House said will change:

  • Retirement. Retirees can apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits online in a streamlined process.
  • Filing and managing taxes. Filers can schedule a call from customer support online and use online tools to file or to manage refunds.
  • Surviving disaster. The 25 million individuals, families and companies hit by a federally recognized natural disaster each year could file claims and provide pictures of the damage directly from their mobile phone.
  • Travel-related change. Renew passports and benefit from shorter security lines as a result of technology that simplifies the process.
  •  Student debt. Better manage student loans, including one online payment portal for public-funded loans, applications for public service loan forgiveness, among others.
  • Access veterans benefits and information.
  • Get services. Enroll in programs that benefit low-income and vulnerable populations, recertify income status and connect more easily between programs.
  • Apply online for Small Business Administration programs, including farm loans
  • Medical care. Use more and better telehealth options.

The digital divide

The Close the Gap Foundation highlights some of the challenges created by a digital divide, a situation in which people who are low-income or elderly can struggle to use programs and services that rely on technology they may not have or know how to use.

The COVID-19 pandemic put that divide in stark relief as remote learning became necessary and schools and communities scrambled to provide technology to those who didn’t have access. It wasn’t just a matter of not having some kind of computer. Millions didn’t have internet access, either. The Close the Gap Foundation said as many as 1 in 4 students didn't have reliable devices or adequate internet connections. 

The foundation said that in the pandemic, children from low-income families were 10 times less likely to engage with remote learning than households with annual incomes above $25,000 a year.

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A Pew Trust report in September noted discrepancies when counting how many people are disadvantaged by the digital divide. An FCC estimate says 14.5 million. But the report notes that the research group BroadbandNow found 42 million. And that Microsoft calculated 157 million.

Pew reported that it’s “even fuzzier how much the monthly cost of subscribing to broadband deters Americans from having a connection at home or keeps them on slow and outdated connections that make streaming video, sharing documents and other common chores irritatingly slow or impossible.”

In April 2020, Deseret News highlighted how Millard School District parked a Wi-Fi-equipped school bus in a rural neighborhood to give families access to the internet. Nationwide, reports abound of students doing homework in cars parked outside public libraries or businesses with open Wi-Fi connections. 

Even now, the Federal Communications Commission says that “nearly 15 million schoolchildren lack internet access at home, creating a nationwide homework gap that left unsolved could become an opportunity gap.” The FCC-administered Affordable Connectivity Program provides eligible households a $30 broadband discount, while those on tribal land can save $75.

People have been impacted in many other ways, as well. New America reported that health care increasingly relies on broadband. Just among those in the UnitedHealthGroup, the number of telehealth visits rose from 1.2 million in 2019 to 34 million in 2020.

Just getting a COVID-19 vaccine usually requires scheduling an appointment online.

New America reported that white adults have greater access than Blacks, who have greater access than Hispanics. Native Americans are among the most disadvantaged.

Finding help face to face.

Although they recognize the benefits that digital services offer, experts warn that face-to-face interaction shouldn’t be allowed to go away.

Rachidi said that some program participants have significant issues that can be helped by working in person with someone. “For example, staff might discover domestic violence issues or child abuse and neglect. When there is no personal interaction, those issues go uncovered. Opportunities to connect benefit recipients to jobs or other supports might be missed if everything is online or digitized,” she said. 

Bailey worries that streamlining might combine things that would be better left separate. “This might mean that I only have to answer 13 questions for SNAP, but because the application is combined with Medicaid, it takes 60 questions —whether I am applying for Medicaid or not,” he said.

When the government relies on long, online forms “people give up on apps, and the government limits other application options to drive people to online platforms. It means some of the most vulnerable get left out without a caseworker to assist,” he noted.

Bill Tibbitts, Crossroad Urban Center’s associate director, has been pushing Utah to shorten its public assistance application. He describes himself as a “big fan” of the executive order for its potential to make it easier for people to apply for government programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

Right now, Utah’s online application for the programs can take up to two hours to finish, he said, noting that “state officials say the feds keep requiring them to add questions and to make questions more difficult to understand. This executive order should take away that excuse.”

But he, too, sees potential problems. Tibbitts said forms are not optimized to be filled out using smartphones, even though as many as 80% of people participating who apply for and use Medicaid and food stamps fill out the application and submit paperwork online using smartphones. While Utah’s reportedly in the process of changing that, he said the internet shifted to mobile devices before the state’s last major system upgrade.

That’s not a Utah-centric problem, Tibbitts added. States vary in how they have optimized their forms and how they currently accept them.

“A lot of our homeless clients cannot use the internet at all, but for others, their phone is the only reliable internet access they have,” he said.