President Biden was understandably defensive on August 3 while admitting the need for an extended eviction moratorium beyond the one that expired on July 31. For one thing, he knew the U.S. Supreme Court had warned against a further extension on grounds that the original moratorium was dubious constitutionally. For another, he and his administration had not asked Congress to attempt a fix of the legal problem until it was too late. But he also had to explain why so little (an estimated 6 percent) of the $46 billion Congress has authorized for rental assistance to cover back rent and keep landlords from pursing evictions has reached its intended beneficiaries. He bluntly blamed states and localities, as his economic adviser Gene Sperling had done in a White House press availability the day before:
[W]e have stressed and the President has continued to stress that state and local governments must do more, all of them, to accelerate the funding to these renters and landlords. Particularly, as we face the end of the eviction moratorium and the rise of the Delta variant. …
The President is clear, if some states and localities can get this out efficiently and effectively there’s no reason every state and locality can’t. There is simply no excuse, no place to hide for any state or locality that is failing to accelerate their Emergency Rental Assistance fund.
As advocates and some progressive journalists were quick to note, the funding in question had been difficult to distribute in no small part because it is being funneled through a patchwork of state and local agencies with little background in this type of program, and is hamstrung by complicated eligibility requirements and very little education of the intended beneficiaries. David Dayen of The American Prospect has been writing about this for a good while:
Around 7.4 million Americans are behind on rent, but the assistance program has helped around 600,000. Tenants have been unable to access rental assistance for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s a completely decentralized program; every locality must build from scratch its own process for getting the money out. Each initiative varies widely on verifying rental debt and placing paperwork burdens on the renter, and some give landlords discretion on whether to accept the assistance. If they would rather kick out the renter and bring in someone else at higher rent, they can reject it.
As it happens, complaints about state and local intermediaries and the paperwork burdens associated with determining eligibility for means-tested benefits were both central to a powerful essay by Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic last week, which blasted what she called the “Time Tax” so often imposed on needy Americans who are expected to navigate a complex system to get the help they have supposedly been provided:
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.
Like Dayen, Lowrey finds delegation of federal responsibilities to state and local government irrational and inefficient. But truth be told, we live in a country where the federal government does little other than (as I used to put it when I worked in federal-state relations) “fighting wars, writing regs, and mailing checks.” Few of what we think of as federal “safety net” benefits are actually delivered by the federal government, other than those distributed as tax credits via the IRS. Many state and local bureaucracies exist primarily to run federal programs. But they are not necessarily prepared to handle new responsibilities suddenly imposed on them in the midst of a pandemic, and must satisfy federal regulators and congressional overseers of their use of federal dollars.
Lowrey is especially scathing on the subject of means-testing and its consequences for quick distribution of funds: “It is one legacy of the half-millennium-old custom of separating the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.” But when it comes to a program aimed at addressing urgently needed rental assistance, what is the alternative to determining eligibility? Sending a check to every renter? Every citizen?
Yes, the Americans most in need of quickly distributed federal benefits often get caught between Democratic tolerance for bureaucracy and Republican efforts to minimize aid through punitive paperwork. But what bedevils the reform of benefit programs most is the traditional disdain in politics, government, and journalism for boring “process” issues like administrative procedures and intergovernmental relations. It will take a sea change in public administration to devise a more centralized and streamlined system for meeting the needs the government is designed to address. But it must begin with a real focus on the nuts and bolts of how government operates and how laws are written. Perhaps the scandal of long-delayed rental assistance will hasten that debate. Until then, when “federal” programs fail, we may find that the funding, like the proverbial check, is in the mail undelivered.