Administrative Burden: Is Red Tape a Social Justice Issue?


Navigating layers of bureaucracy is a near-universal experience for Americans interacting with the government. Simple tasks like getting a driver’s license or voting can become all-day ordeals, and enrolling in public assistance or insurance programs can drag into weeks and months. It is tempting to chalk these inconveniences up to the inherent nature of bureaucracy, but in reality, many burdens, either by accident or on purpose, disproportionately harm marginalized people.  How, then, can recognizing and addressing this universal phenomenon become a crucial part of furthering social justice and equity?

What is administrative burden?
Experts of administrative burden have defined it as “an individual’s experience of policy implementation as onerous.”(1) In other words, administrative burden is the barrier, or sequence of barriers, that obstructs people from accessing or maintaining government benefits, or performing civic functions. Examples of burdens include long application forms to access need-based benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the complex process of applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief after a natural disaster. 

Administrative burden is sometimes referred to as a “time tax” because individuals frequently must expend large amounts of their time to orient themselves with policies and requirements. Burdens exact several types of costs of individuals:

  • Learning costs: It takes time and effort for an individual to learn about a program or service. Information about eligibility, the nature of the benefits, and how to access benefits may be difficult to find or understand.
  • Compliance costs: An individual may incur costs to comply with a program’s requirements. They may have to provide information and documentation to show eligibility. There may also be financial costs to access services such as fees, travel/transportation costs, and lost wages from taking time off work.
  • Psychological costs: An individual may experience stigma associated with some government assistance programs, especially those that are need-based. The uncertainty and stress of going through these complex processes further compounds psychological costs.(2)

Administrative burdens can be incidental or intentional. Some burdens result from an amalgam of policies that have accumulated over time from legislative bodies with ever-changing political compositions. Alternately, some burdens have been intentionally designed to limit access to government benefits. For example, some states have pushed to make the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more difficult to obtain by proposing work requirements and mandatory drug testing. 

Why is this a social justice issue? 
Burdens are inequitably distributed across populations. People of color, immigrants, low-income people, and people with disabilities frequently face the greatest burdens. For example, need-based programs that benefit low-income families are generally more difficult to access than universal programs like Social Security, which is administered with little action required from participants. For programs like SNAP, the onus is on recipients to prove their eligibility. States with higher proportions of Black recipients tend to have higher burdens for safety net programs.(3) 

The experience of burden can be exacerbated by other forms of oppression. People in historically oppressed communities are likely to experience poor infrastructure, lack of broadband access, and lack of access to medical care.(4) These shortcomings are the result of discriminatory policies such as housing segregation and redlining.  People within these communities thus face additional barriers that make administrative burdens more difficult to overcome.

What can be done about administrative burden? 
In December 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that seeks to reduce bureaucratic obstacles to accessing benefits such as Social Security, disaster aid, and student loan relief. Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services hired a nonprofit design firm to streamline its central benefit application. The result of cutting the application length down by 80% was a reduction in application time from 40 minutes to 16 minutes, and an increase in completed applications from 72% to 94%.(5) In Houston, officials have reduced administrative burden for unhoused Houstonians, who a decade ago had to "navigate 76 bureaucratic steps to get from the street into permanent housing"; The process of obtaining housing now is down from 720 days to 32.

Organizations and communities can address administrative burden through advocacy, education initiatives, or walking people through the application process. These efforts can help people who would be otherwise unaware they qualify for a government benefit, and decrease the stigma associated with receiving services. Many nonprofits also cover application fees for low-income clients.

As our awareness of this issue continues to grow, we at Texas Appleseed will work to eliminate administrative burden in our policy recommendations.

(1) Burden, B. C., Canon, D. T., Mayer, K. R., & Moynihan, D. P. (2012). The Effect of Administrative Burden on Bureaucratic Perception of Policies: Evidence from Election Administration. Public Administration Review, 72(5), 2.
(2) Herd, P. , & Moynihan, D.P. (2018). Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means. Russell Sage Foundation, 22-23.
(3) Ray, Victor. October 21, 2021. Racialized Burdens Applying Racialized Organization Theory to the Administrative State [Video]. UMDPublicPolicy YouTube Channel. 
(4) Heinrich, C. J., Camacho, S., Henderson, S. C., Hernández, M., & Joshi, E. (2021). Consequences of Administrative Burden for Social Safety Nets that Support the Healthy Development of Children. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 29-32.
(5) Lowrey, Annie (2021). “The Time Tax: Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens?” The Atlantic.


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