The Urban Institute recently issued a report that highlights, again, the value that objective data can bring to overcome the human bias that’s inherent when people are making subjective decisions to grant public benefits to applicants in need. Sadly, humans can check their humanity at the door and bring their biases to the decision-making process. The study confirms that humans need to do more to identify and discard their innate biases. Implicit in this report is the value that data can play an important role to help consumers in need. Data is not perfect, but it helps.
Urban found that
in some means-tested programs, such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)…the actions of frontline workers with discretionary decisionmaking power may be influenced by how they perceive potential clients, especially if they hold negative biases toward certain racial groups. For example, research shows that clients of color who have “discrediting markers,” like having multiple children or a history of sanctions for not complying with program rules, are more likely to face unfair disciplinary actions than white clients with the same markers./1/
Data can power decisions and remove human bias. The GAO found in early-2021 that “data verification can help reduce improper [public benefits] payments and improve administrative efficiencies, particularly when data are timely and accurate.”/2/
To better understand how states are finding ways to make faster and more efficient eligibility determinations for government benefits, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Government Business Council (“GBC”) interviewed state health and human services leaders from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. A common thread that runs through all eligibility determinations is that state agencies must check a variety of data sources. GBC found that a “state’s eligibility system ultimately hinges on its access to timely and accurate information. States connect with several other electronic data interfaces to verify applicant-submitted information.” Data for these decisions comes from a combination of public and private sources. Public sources include data from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration. Much of this data is centralized in the Federal Data Services Hub./3/ Private sources include data centralized by members of the Consumer Data Industry Association (“CDIA”)
/1/ Eleanor Pratt & Heather Hahn, What Happens When People Face Unfair Treatment or Judgment When Applying for Public Assistance or Social Services? Urban Inst., Aug. 2011.
/2/ U.S. Gen. Accountability Office, GAO 28-103, Federal Low-Income Programs: Use of Data to Verify Eligibility Varies Among Selected Programs and Opportunities Exist to Promote Additional Use, Feb. 2021.
/3/ Gov’t. Bus. Council, Caring Forward: Paving the Way Toward Streamlined Social Services, 2019.
Eric J. Ellman is Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) in Washington, DC. He also served for eight months as Interim President and CEO of the Association. More