Can automation promote digital equity by boosting enrollment in connectivity subsidy programs?

With the expiration of the ACP (Affordable Connectivity Program) benefit in May 2024, Lifeline remains the only alternative federal program that supports digital connectivity for low-income families. Yet for a variety of reasons, Lifeline enrollment has been declining since its peak in the early 2010s. One reason is the complex web of procedures to demonstrate eligibility, enroll in the program and receive services. These obstacles are collectively referred to as administrative burdens, and impose a variety of costs that ultimately deter eligible individuals and families from applying in the first place or prevent them from receiving benefits in a timely and uninterrupted manner.

Among the policy tools to address administrative burden is the automation of procedures to verify eligibility for program enrollment and recertification. At the core of automation is the assumption that the burden of proof must shift from the beneficiary to the state, supported by data sharing agreements between government agencies that minimize the steps that eligible individuals and families must take to receive benefits.

In this new study, we examine the results of two initiatives to automate eligibility certification for programs that offer support for telephony and Internet services: the National Verifier (NV) system developed by USAC and the “CalFresh Confirm” system implemented by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Overall, the results suggest that automation has the potential to promote program uptake and reduce administrative burdens. States that launched the NV earlier fared better (that is, experienced a smaller drop in enrollment) relative to those that launched later. Further, the results indicate that the benefits are realized over time as both recipients and service providers adjust to the new system. At the same time, the findings also underscore the risks that automation presents. The implementation of CalFresh Confirms greatly simplifies recertifications for California Lifeline recipients, however the benefits are contingent on participation in SNAP. The results show that, because older adults are less likely to receive SNAP benefits (regardless of eligibility), they have benefited less from the CalFresh Confirm system. This risks amplifying pre-existing inequalities in welfare program participation, and underline the need for careful planning and evaluation of automation initiatives in digital equity support programs.

Along with the study, we offer two dashboards that allow users to explore the data used in the study. The first dashboard contains information about the NV implementation over time across states, as well as NV applications and Lifeline subscriptions:

The second dashboard helps visualize how participation in the California Lifeline program has evolved before and after the implementation of Calfresh Confirm and the impact on different populations.