New RSF Journal Issue: Administrative Burdens and Inequality in Policy Implementation

October 18, 2023

Administrative burdens are the learning, compliance, and psychological costs – in other words, the bureaucracy –  that people encounters when interacting with public services. While some burdens are unintentional, others are deliberately constructed as barriers to limit claims to programs and services. Such burdens fall most heavily on marginalized groups, often preventing them from resources they need. In this double issue of RSF public administration scholar Pamela Herd (Georgetown University), economist Hilary Hoynes (UC, Berkeley), political scientists Jamila Michener (Cornell University) and Donald Moynihan (Georgetown University), and an interdisciplinary group of contributors explore how administrative burdens shape inequality.

Part 1 examines how administrative burdens impact Medicaid and health inequality, student loan repayment programs, and immigration to the U.S. Emily Rauscher and Ailish Burns find that combinations of reforms to reduce administrative burdens in the late 1980s increased Medicaid enrollment and improved infant health nearly as much as Medicaid expansion. Adam Goldstein and colleagues show that administrative burdens in enrolling in income-driven repayment student loan programs causes borrowers with lower socioeconomic status to be disproportionately excluded from these programs. Lilly Yu finds that dramatic changes to immigration law and policy during the Trump Administration led immigration lawyers to inadvertently exacerbate inequality among undocumented and vulnerable immigrants’ access to legal representation.

Part 2 looks at the role of administrative burdens in experiences with child and family support programs, the child welfare system, disaster and housing relief programs, and housing support programs. Carolyn Barnes and colleagues find that mothers’ perceptions of the costs and benefits of participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vary over time and influence whether they choose to enroll or continue participating in the program. Ethan J. Raker and Tyler M. Woods find applications from poor communities of color for FEMA housing aid after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were disproportionately denied or delayed due to burdensome program requirements and implementation. Stephanie Casey Pierce and Stephanie Moulton reveal that reforms to reduce administrative burden in foreclosure programs are associated with a significant increase in the rate of benefit receipt and decrease in the foreclosure rate. Frank Edwards and colleagues show child welfare system-involved parents must navigate considerable administrative burdens in order to retain custody of their children.

This special double issue of RSF shows that by ensuring the public’s interaction with government is no more onerous than it needs to be, policymakers and administrators can reduce inequality, boost civic engagement, and build an efficient state that works for all citizens.

Click here to access this issue of RSF.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.