Promoting Digital Equity by Automating Enrollment in Consumer Support Programs

June 24, 2024

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Lifeline and the now defunct ACP (Affordable Connectivity Program) have helped millions of families afford Internet services that support online learning, remote work, and access to telehealth, among many other uses linked to social and economic wellbeing. However, individuals and families entitled to receive these benefits often have to navigate a 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 study, we examine two initiatives to automate eligibility certification for programs that offer support for telephony and Internet services for low-income families: 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 CA 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.