The Big Impact of Little Barriers to Public Benefits

Paul Shafer is an assistant professor of Health Law, Policy, and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health. He tweets @shaferpr.

A recent article, I published in Tradeoffs looks at a study in JAMA Network Open examining how needing to physically show up at a social service agency office dampened participation in a critical food assistance program—Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—during COVID-19. Administrative burdens can keep people out of programs that they are eligible for, with big implications for health and health equity given the populations that programs like this serve.

In it, I write:

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supports women with low incomes and their children, and the program has proven to help narrow racial and ethnic disparities in infant health. WIC benefits are provided on an electronic debit card, which some states automatically reload (“online states”) and others reload only at in-person WIC office visits (“offline states”).

The authors estimated that offline states experienced a nearly 10% drop (-9.3%) in WIC participation during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic relative to online states. This was a product of both increased participation in online states and decreased participation in offline states. Meanwhile, the authors found that participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to as “food stamps”) — a program that renews remotely in all states — saw no significant changes in participation during COVID-19.

Read the full piece at Tradeoffs!

Research for this piece was supported by Arnold Ventures.

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