Not long ago, a New York City data analyst who had been laid off shortly after the pandemic hit told me she had filed for unemployment-insurance payments and then spent the next six months calling, emailing, and using social media to try to figure out why the state’s Labor Department would not send her the money she was owed. A mother in Philadelphia living below the poverty line told me about her struggle to maintain government aid. Disabled herself and caring for a disabled daughter, she had not gotten all of her stimulus checks and, because she does not regularly file taxes or use a computer, needed help from a legal-aid group to make sure she would get the newly expanded child-tax-credit payments. A Colorado systems administrator with a chronic medical condition told me that switching jobs had caused an accidental lapse in his health coverage, which led to a cascade of paperwork over responsibility for a medical bill. He estimated that he had spent 100 hours resolving the issue. Many Americans have stories like these. To make sure that the safety net catches us, to make sure that our social-insurance programs insure us, to make sure that we get what we pay Uncle Sam for, we work as our own health-care administrators. Our own tax professionals. Our own social workers. Our own disability-law experts. Our own child-support advocates, long-term-care reps, and public-housing officials. In my decade-plus of social-policy reporting, I have mostly understood these stories as facts of life. Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the “time tax”—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time. The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people who are struggling to find a job, failing to feed their kids, sliding into poverty, or managing a disabling health condition. The United States government—whether controlled by Democrats, with their love of too-complicated-by-half, means-tested policy solutions; or Republicans, with their love of paperwork-as-punishment; or both, with their collective neglect of the implementation and maintenance of government programs—has not just given up on making benefits easy to understand and easy to receive. It has in many cases purposefully made the system difficult, shifting the burden of public administration onto individuals and discouraging millions of Americans from seeking aid. The government rations public services through perplexing, unfair bureaucratic friction. And when people do not get help designed for them, well, that is their own fault. The time tax is worse for individuals who are struggling than for the rich; larger for Black families than for white families; harder on the sick than on the healthy. It is a regressive filter undercutting every progressive policy we have. In America, losing a job means making a hundred phone calls to a state unemployment-insurance system. Getting hit by a car means becoming your own hospital-billing expert. Having a disability means launching into a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–type legal battle. Needing help to feed a toddler means filling out a novel-length application for aid. Edward Tenner: Efficiency is biting back The Biden administration is expanding the welfare state, through the new child tax credit and other initiatives. Congressional Democrats are crafting a new New Deal. But little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist. And very little attention is being paid to making things work for the neediest—people short on time, money, and mental bandwidth. The time tax needs to be measured. It needs to be managed. And it needs to end. First, perhaps, we need to see it for what it is. This is not easy to do, by design. The United States has no unified social security agency. Instead, federal, state, and local offices administer dozens of different programs with different rules and application processes. Some are direct-benefit programs; others are complicated tax expenditures. Some are entitlements, where everyone gets the benefit if they qualify; others are rationed benefits, where submitting an application means spinning a wheel and hoping for the best. Some benefits have easy online applications; others are old-fashioned paper nightmares. (And many digital systems are just as bad as the analog ones.) The Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles has memorably described this system as a “kludgeocracy.” Let’s take a tour d’horizon. The unemployment-insurance system was the primary bulwark against the economic ravages of the coronavirus recession, keeping the country’s finances afloat. It is, in fact, not a bulwark, but a patchwork of 53 unemployment-insurance systems, many of which are meant to frustrate users. Its designers’ goal was to “put as many kind-of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, ‘Oh, the hell with it; I’m not going to do that,’” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis admitted during the pandemic. “It was definitely done in a way to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.” An estimated 9 million Americans left jobless by the pandemic never got a single unemployment payment. Or consider the tentpoles of American assistance for working families: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps; the earned-income tax credit; and the child tax credit. Food stamps reach some 40 million Americans in 21 million households. In many states, applying for them involves a quick online request, a quick approval, and a quick turnaround to start getting benefits. But not always. SNAP is workfare, meaning that adult participants judged to be “able-bodied” need to log their work hours or demonstrate that they are looking for a job. Folks get thrown off the rolls constantly for, say, not having a functioning computer. (These work requirements do not boost employment, by the way.) As for the earned-income tax credit, 22 percent of eligible recipients miss out on the generous benefit because they do not file or misfile their taxes. “Credit eligibility depends on marital status at the end of the year, earnings, income, and citizenship status,” the Tax Policy Center notes. “There are additional tests of relationship and residency for people with children. Eligibility can vary from year to year.” Experts worry that millions of children—mostly ones growing up in unstable, extremely poor households—will miss out on the new child allowance because their parents do not know that the policy exists and will not sign up for it. The online portal for households that do not regularly file taxes is only in English, written in difficult-to-parse language, and not mobile-friendly. No paper or telephone sign-up option exists. The government has thus far developed no plan to reach the poorest kids. The time tax is also imposed through smaller, clunkier programs. Getting housing aid is excruciating. Consider the process in Butte County, California. An applicant first needs to get on a waitlist for rental assistance. The waitlist opens only periodically, sometimes for just a few days at a time, when a “public announcement is placed in area newspapers” and information is posted on a website. A person needs to win a lottery to get on it, and then needs to wait—generally for half a decade. When finally selected, hopefuls are contacted by mail. Next comes an eligibility appointment, an application, and finally verification, which might or might not be successful, a process that “could take several weeks or months.” Many programs meant to aid the poorest of the poor have demeaning, invasive, and time-consuming screening requirements. More than a dozen states require welfare applicants to submit to a drug test. State Women, Infants, and Children programs generally require in-person interviews and numerous in-clinic appointments, meaning applicants need to take time off work and find transportation to a WIC office just to get help buying formula and diapers. Read: Cash for kids comes to the United States Applications are overlong and addled with headache-inducing questions too. This is one of dozens that recipients of Supplemental Security Income, aimed at the destitute elderly, must answer: “Have you or your spouse sold, transferred title, disposed of or given away, any money or other property, including money or property in foreign countries, since the first moment of the filing date month or within the 36 months prior to filing date month?” The government often asks program participants to reapply, recertify, or log in with evidence of their neediness and worthiness. Should people mess up their paperwork, wait times for administrative help are long. And the threat of “sanctions,” “clawbacks,” garnishments, and other punitive measures looms.