The New York Times’ “Upshot” section recently highlighted research findings from the RSF book Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means, by Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan (Georgetown University). The NY Times developed an “Administrative Burden Quiz,” which asked readers to see whether they make the kinds of mistakes that can cost poor families food or health insurance.
In their book, public policy experts Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan define administrative burdens as bureaucracy, confusing paperwork, and complex regulations that introduce delay and frustration into our experiences with government agencies. Administrative burdens diminish the effectiveness of public programs and can even block individuals from fundamental rights like voting.
The NY Times article accompanying the quiz reports on a national sample of 4,400 adults from across the income spectrum, who were asked whether they would struggle with common kinds of administrative tasks. Many of the respondents reported sometimes failing to open mail promptly, forgetting to pay major bills, or missing important appointments. The Times found that a substantial share of people, including the wealthy and Americans on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum, make the kind of mistakes that could cause a loss of government benefits.
In their book, Herd and Moynihan show that the administrative burdens citizens regularly encounter in their interactions with the state are not simply unintended byproducts of governance, but the result of deliberate policy choices. For instance, legislators have implemented administrative burdens such as complicated registration requirements and strict voter-identification laws to suppress turnout of African American voters. Similarly, the right to an abortion is legally protected, but many states require women seeking abortions to comply with burdens such as mandatory waiting periods, ultrasounds, and scripted counseling. As Herd and Moynihan demonstrate, administrative burdens often disproportionately affect the disadvantaged who lack the resources to deal with the financial and psychological costs of navigating these obstacles.