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Barriers to Social Services Fuel Racial Inequity (Contributed)

With a few changes to existing systems, human-centered technology can help counter the racial bias embedded in the social safety net by creating more opportunity for people of color to access services digitally.

The past several months have brought into sharp relief a great many inequities that are fundamentally challenging our country.

We’ve endured the harrowing pain of watching Black people lose lives at the hands of the systems intended to protect all Americans, recently Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We are seeing the inequitable impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting our nation’s legacy of health and economic disparities. We are witnessing economic fallout striking Black and Latino Americans at shockingly disproportionate rates.

People across the country are realizing a truth that Black people have always known: Racism is deeply embedded in our society’s economic and social systems, driving an insidious undercurrent that is hostile to the idea of helping people in need.

In short, while opportunity is universal in the U.S., access to it is not. The question is: How can technology be used as a tool to address inequity? Barriers to real equity exist at all levels; they’re deeply rooted, going back to before my great, great grandfather was born. Removing them will require systemic change across all spectrums if we want to do better, and in this modern era this includes looking at the role that technology plays in impeding or improving efforts for change.

Barriers extend to how people in our country are able to access needed benefits from state and local agencies to pay their bills, feed their families and get medical care. At Alluma, we see very clearly how obtaining this support remains an obstacle for many, thanks to a system and the way it utilizes technology — or doesn’t.

It’s a system that often ignores, or in some instances doesn’t care, how people live, or doesn’t believe that people who ask for help deserve it. Consider just a few cases in point — and the simple tech fixes that if agencies made would help reduce the racial inequities that exist in our support system today:

Problem: Agencies’ applications, forms, websites or notices often are not translated for those whose primary language is not English, even though this practice is required by federal law. 

Fix: Provide a translation function on all websites and apps that is easy to find and use. Content should be translated into required threshold languages, with user-testing conducted in these languages to ensure that the translation is understood. 

Problem: People who receive public benefits are often required to provide information, sign documents or be interviewed in person. Thus, those who are living paycheck to paycheck must take unpaid time off from their jobs, and pay for child care and transportation, to conduct activities that can be accomplished virtually or waived when needed. Not only is requiring face-to-face transactions an archaic way of providing services in today’s digital age, it is even more dangerous now, as many people with compromised health are forced to expose themselves to harm when it’s important that they remain physically distant to stay safe amid the spread of COVID-19. 

Fix: Allow people to conduct interviews by phone, sign documents electronically, and upload documents digitally via a picture or scan from a mobile phone. Prior to requesting documentation, agencies can work to obtain as much required information as possible from digital data sources.  

Problem: People lose their benefits and must re-apply simply because they did not return their renewal form on time. This is just one example of people being thrown out of the system for procedural reasons — costing the agencies more time and money, when it would have been just as easy to assume that the person’s circumstances haven’t changed, and they should be given the benefit of the doubt absent information to the contrary. 

Fix: Identify digital means of sending renewal notices by preferred forms of communication such as text or email. Agencies can use existing sources of information to renew eligibility, send a pre-populated renewal form digitally, send text or email reminders for information needed to avoid termination, allow electronic signatures, and accept electronic submission of any needed documentation. 

Problem: The rules for each benefit program — health, housing, food, child-care assistance — are different, hard to understand, and require different applications asking for much of the same information to apply. This patchwork of rules and processes is expensive and inefficient, and requires individuals to provide the same information over and over to different agencies, resulting in delays in getting help to people in need and an unnecessary use of agencies’ time and resources.

Fix: Use existing infrastructure and process to allow for electronic data-sharing between agencies, reducing — and sometimes eliminating—  the need for people to submit the same information multiple times.

Problem: Families who receive WIC — a program for pregnant women and women with newborns — are not permitted to use their food vouchers for online food purchases and delivery, a service that many of us take for granted and is especially crucial during this pandemic for families with young children. The USDA requires recipients to complete their food purchases in a store, in front of a cashier.

Fix: Allow WIC recipients to use the same technology that other consumers are using to purchase their groceries online and have them delivered, as they strive to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These barriers are fixable. The technology exists. The policies exist. The know-how exists. These obstacles should be among the easiest to remove, and doing so would go far in helping Black, indigenous and other communities of people of color to thrive.    

But making these changes will require a shift in our mindset to one that sees people asking for help with empathy rather than through a lens tainted with a cynical view of people through a race and class lens. It calls for a perspective that provides everyone with the same access to services that we all expect. It will require a concerted effort by the public and nonprofit sectors to change both who and what they invest in, and how they work together to create the foundation necessary to streamline and simplify access to help.

As we move forward in what I hope is a new era guided by fairness and empathy, let’s make sure that we address the institutional, entrenched obstacles that have been driven by our collective lack of compassion — to ensure our nation provides access to opportunity for all of us.

Robert Phillips is president and CEO of Alluma, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that develops policy-based technology solutions for government agencies that enroll people in public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.