Political Ideology Slows Emergency Help for Renters

Lessons from a Public Interest Technology Analysis
Nov. 22, 2022

Created as part of a broader pandemic relief effort and under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) provided financial support to households to help them cover rent and utility bills at a time when many Americans had lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over several months, our team took a deep dive into its implementation. We created a need-based calculation derived from the number of rent-burdened households in order to understand potential implementation flaws. What we didn’t expect to find was that in some cases, political ideology and a highly polarized nation meant that the people who were in charge of disbursing funds to residents were also actively opposed to providing that help.

We expected that states and municipalities that had previously stood up similar programs would do better at spending down ERAP funds than those who were doing it for the first time, and this proved to be true. We expected to find, and did find, confusing websites and poorly worded forms, all known delivery problems that often complicate and sometimes prevent help from reaching those in need. But we did not expect to see the pronounced correlation between political ideology and service delivery.

Because of ERAP’s design, either states or municipalities had the power to receive federal dollars and administer the program. “As long as the state and city get along, that is okay,” said Rebecca Yae, a senior research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “But if they aren’t open to collaborating it presents a challenge.”

In Georgia, for example, the state (under Republican leadership) opted to deny help to any resident who applied for funds from a locale whose jurisdiction also offered an ERAP program. But local programs only received 45 percent of their population’s share of the state’s funding. In other words, the state programs had more money per capita than cities and counties. This meant that when Atlanta’s program (under Democratic leadership) ran out of money, as its need exceeded the funding, the state flat out refused to provide city residents with funds. After an outcry, the state eventually opened applications up to all residents.

In retrospect, we should have anticipated this finding. The nation has seen this same dynamic play out on the policy level in the expansion of Medicaid, which 12 predominantly red states have opted not to adopt. And when it comes to delivery, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides critical cash assistance for families, is significantly easier to access in blue-heavy states like California or Vermont, but barely accessible in red Mississippi and Louisiana.

The mission of the Public Interest Technology (PIT) team at New America is to increase the application of public interest technology to solve public problems in the digital age. To this end, we work with state and municipal governments and nonprofits, to put the three tenets of PIT—centering humans in the process, using real-time data, and focusing on delivery—into practice across the country.

Part of our approach is digging down to the root of a problem before proposing a solution. But over the years, as we have dug down to the root of the problem in projects ranging from unemployment insurance to homelessness, we always came back to how a given policy has been designed.

Federal policies originate in Congress, but they are typically implemented by states and municipalities. We see our nation stuck in a dysfunctional cycle: Congress authorizes funds for states to solve a problem, but the effective and efficient disbursement of those funds relies on technical capacity and know-how, which states are typically lacking. As a result, Congress passes a bill, and then a few months later newspaper articles appear, expressing anger and disbelief at states’ and municipalities’ inability to effectively get those funds to the people who need help.

The obvious answer for our team seemed to be to bring a PIT approach to Congress. Because congressional staffers generally work on issues they care deeply about solving, we determined that the best way to begin the conversation about centering users, using data, and thinking through how help is delivered would be to find a recent piece of legislation that had failed to adequately reach people in need, and appeal to the people working on that issue area.

So we waited to see which legislation would make headlines. We didn’t need to wait long. Shortly after our project began, ERAP began making headlines. And not the good kind.

As part of our research, we were interested in learning which jurisdictions were the most successful in moving money out the door efficiently. In PIT terms, this is called delivery. Who was able to find people in need and deliver assistance in time to make a difference? To create this comparison, we developed an index that scored states based on how much money they moved and how quickly they moved it. Our initial goal in this work was to determine which characteristics were shared by the most effective ERAP programs.

Our index assigns additional weight to dollars that a state spent earlier, with triple credit to dollars spent in Q2 2021 and double credit for dollars spent in Q3 2021. The total is then divided by the allocation, which has been corrected to remove the small-state minimum, which would otherwise punish small states in this calculation. For the three states (Ark., D.C., and R.I.) which benefited from the small-state minimum but spent above what their population alone would have allocated, we use their true spend number for the denominator.

But as we plotted the speed on a graph, we couldn’t help but notice that states seemed to be clustering together based on political ideology. To better visualize this split, we mapped the data to which party carried the state in the 2020 Presidential election.

Looking at the data from our index revealed a strong correlation between the speed of ERAP spending and the political orientation of the state. While many drivers of quick spending tended to travel together, our research showed that politics had an explanatory power apart from need, early startup, or anything else. We also looked at the correlation between speed of spending (0.34) and need (0.38), as well as pre-existing ERAP programs in states, but by far the highest correlation of spending speed was to Democratic presidential vote share in the 2020 election (0.73). (Need is defined as percentage of housing units where residents are paying half or more of their income on rent.)

Rooting Out Fraud vs. Speeding Up Help

Further complicating the delivery of ERAP was that the program spanned two presidential administrations with two very different ideologies. The guidelines for the program shifted midstream, from an administration focused on fraud prevention above all else, to one that prioritized getting dollars out the door quickly to those in need.

Why did Democratic-leaning states spend their funds faster? Although limited available data do not allow for a rigorous review, a comparison at the local level in Texas provides a possible explanation. The design of ERAP allowed either states or municipalities—or both—to administer the program. In Texas, both Harris and Montgomery Counties accepted ERAP funding to support their citizens. Harris County, which encompasses Houston and some near-in suburbs, has a population of 4.7 million and a Democratic 2020 presidential vote share of 56 percent. Montgomery County represents Houston’s immediate northern suburbs, with 620,000 people and a Democratic 2020 presidential vote share of 27 percent. Harris has a higher poverty rate and therefore one would expect both greater need for ERAP funding and the ability to disburse those funds. But the results go far beyond that distinction.

Harris ran a successful program, distributing 91 percent of its allocation to needy recipients. Montgomery spent only 4 percent of its already much smaller allocation, disbursing ERAP funding to only 226 households in a county where over 41,000 people receive SNAP benefits. Correcting for both population and poverty status, Harris spent 11 times the amount of money to support its vulnerable citizens.

Harris County worked with local nonprofits to run its program. This is an element that most successful programs incorporated, but which also points to a desire to work with communities in providing assistance. It is one of the central elements of the PIT framework. In this way and others, Harris County’s clear goal was to disburse funds to those in need. Conversely, Montgomery County stood up its own website rather than working with community organizations, thereby removing people from the center of the process and trading it for bureaucracy. It required that applicants submit significant documentation to receive aid and prioritized rooting out fraud over providing help to residents.

To put it more starkly, Harris County ERAP administrators believed that all residents who needed help should receive it as quickly as possible, and that it was the government’s responsibility to provide it. As a result, Harris County created a safety net for those who were in danger of falling, keeping them out of shelters, off the streets, or worse. The actions of Montgomery County’s administrators indicate a belief that it was more dangerous to have any portion of ERAP funds get into the hands of people who were deemed ineligible for them.

It’s no accident that the playbook for depriving people of ERAP help looks an awful lot like the playbook that is used to disenfranchise voters: ask people for documentation they can’t provide. Place burdens on recipients that people of means might be able to overcome, but which quickly become insurmountable when you are working two jobs and don't have gas money.

Was the help that Harris County residents received worth the fraud risk? Certainly the recipients who were able to stay in their homes, feed their families, and clothe their kids while a pandemic raged across the country likely think so. As would the residents of blue counties who are now significantly healthier and live longer than their red-state counterparts, thanks to government policies that work.

To Senta Leslie, associate director of Eviction Prevention at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the choice seemed obvious. “There will be mistakes or data errors, but those are things we can go back and fix,” she said. “If someone is evicted, we can't go back and fix that for them, ever.” Leslie said that Virginia was the first state in the nation to cut an ERAP check, and based on our data, it ran one of the most effective programs in the nation.

The Cost of Fraud Prevention

The more barriers a program throws up for people applying to help, typically in the name of fraud prevention, the fewer people will receive help. Whether these additional barriers actually do anything to prevent fraud is a subject of active debate. “A great study would be the cost of fraud versus the cost of all the additional measures we put to try to prevent it,” suggested Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Other studies have made the case that raising the bar for help only sifts out the most vulnerable and neediest, who don’t have time in their days to physically bring their documentation to offices during work hours, or track down three different forms of identification, two proofs of income, and a recent utility bill. As Pamela Heard and Don Moynihan put it, “having fewer hoops to jump through” means “that those with fewer resources have a greater opportunity to participate and less risk of facing discrimination.” The use of algorithms for fraud prevention often disproportionately harms low-income households.

The first iteration of ERAP required that individuals provide documentation to show they had suffered hardship due to COVID; were at risk of homelessness or housing instability; and had an income at or below 80 percent of the area median. The statute did not, however, specify the documentation required to prove these conditions.

Initial guidance, issued on the last day of the Trump administration, specified that applicants had to produce independent documentation for each of these requirements, such as paycheck amounts, termination letters, or eviction notices. The last-minute Trump administration guidance drew sharp criticism from advocates, who saw it as inconsistent with congressional intent to deliver relief quickly. One congressional staffer described it to us as Trump officials “trolling” the program before walking out the door.

Nonetheless, the action had a lasting negative effect on the program. It forced administrators to design onerous verification requirements that would slow program startup and take time to undo. More critically, the guidance also imprinted a compliance mindset on the minds of program administrators—a focus on making people in need prove their worth—which, in some states, never went away.

It is worth stating that when a program lowers barriers to entry, that automatically opens the program up to a wider swath of fraud compared to a program with higher barriers to entry. But at the same time, if the government provided zero assistance, there would be zero fraud. All modern assistance programs must strike a delicate balance between getting help to those in need and preventing fraud. ERAP was not alone in federal pandemic programs lowering barriers to entry. The Pandemic Unemployment Insurance (PUI) and the Payroll Protection Act (PPP) were implemented similarly, for example, with low levels of compliance requirements, by a Congress that was eager to get help to those in need as quickly as possible. And while collectively these programs did suffer from high levels of fraud, they also helped prevent an economic recession and made dramatic gains across the nation against poverty rates.

In his congressional testimony, H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan wrote, “This is the best, most successful response to an economic crisis that we have ever mounted, and it is not even close.”

The United States has long shamed people who ask for government help, in large part because of the racist legacy of many social programs. Because we are a nation that prides itself on hard work and “bootstrapping” in all its forms, logically it follows that people who need help must simply not be working hard enough. In our research over the years, we have heard time and again from applicants for food assistance to low income housing, that they felt the need to justify why they needed government help. They were embarrassed and ashamed to be in that position. And the onerous, lengthy forms they needed to fill out for government help only confirmed their suspicion that there was something fundamentally wrong with them for landing in this position.

Not all governments take this stance. In Germany, a welfare state where pandemic assistance flowed more rapidly than in most of the rest of the world, the forms for assistance were reassuring, not combative. They told Germans not to panic, that help was on the way. Germany removed means testing in favor of keeping people housed and fed. The German government knew that doing so would invite fraud ( and Germany later needed to work through an avalanche of fraudulent claims), but made the decision that it was more important to help its citizens than ensure that every penny went to a person in need.

When the Biden ERAP team came into office on January 20, 2021, its aim was to remove some of the barriers the previous administration had established, in order to enable more rapid rental relief. On February 22, the team issued new guidance specifying that ERAP applicants could self-certify their income. Later guidance, released in March, May, and August, went much further in discouraging paperwork. Program administrators and expert observers agree that these changes made a critical difference in speeding up the delivery of funds to people in crisis.

The federal reporting requirements of state-administered federal programs can often be onerous for local administrators, and ERAP was no different. In some cases, the late reporting guidance meant extensive rework. As explained by one program in a survey from the National Low Income Housing Coalition: “Treasury did not release comprehensive reporting guidance until nearly three months after we launched our program. The intensive reporting requirements contribute[d] to our need to rebuild our online application portal and back-office workspace … only to have reporting guidance revised again.”

While some of these revisions were necessary because of the prior Republican administration, some were driven by the current Democratic Congress. Additional ERAP legislation, enacted in March, made small changes to eligibility: individuals could receive funds if they experienced hardship “during” rather than “due to” the pandemic and met a slightly more liberal income standard. These modest changes, however well-intentioned, required several paragraphs of additional Treasury Department guidance, and forced more reworking on the part of ERAP administrators across the country.

However, the readjustments sent a clear signal to administrators: focus on getting money to people in need, not on collecting documentation. While it took wisdom for federal policymakers to send this message, it also took courage for state and local leaders to embrace it. Government officials often operate in a permanent state of fear from both legislators and inspectors general who might choose to audit them down the road. As one policymaker told us, “People who will come to audit all of us five years from now are not political appointees and might not care that Janet Yellen said we could use fact-specific proxies.”

Possibly worse than Janet Yellen coming after you, though, is the New York Times. On August 16, 2022, in a front-page expose on pandemic benefits fraud, the paper decried “one of the largest frauds in American history,” erroneously characterizing the fraud as the result of dollars that “came with few strings and minimal oversight.” While the article doesn’t address ERAP specifically, which may have suffered from less fraud than PPP and PUI, the reporter’s argument is clear: few strings in government programs leads to massive fraud, end of story.

But the experience of administrators at the state and municipal level tells a different story, one of government workers trying desperately to stand up functional programs with shifting guidance and few resources. In Philadelphia, for example, an administrator described “reinventing the wheel” repeatedly for different rounds of program requirements. A Texas program administrator said, “this is our third or fourth round of rental assistance for some of these folks, and the documentation process for each round has been different and the application process has been a little bit different. And frankly, they’re tired.”

Policy writers need to understand that when a national policy relies on state and municipal administration—as many policies in a republic do—some jurisdictions will opt to administer the program in a way that centers dollars and fraud rather than humans and need. This is not to say that the risk of fraud isn’t real, but that states are ill-equipped to deal with it, and some will find a way to use the risk to deny people the benefits to which they are legally entitled.