Institutional Roadblocks: Refugee Reception and The Case Against Means Testing

Blair S. Sackett, University of Pennsylvania

Published on: November 24, 2021

Photo illustration by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Safi had not received her food stamps. Safi, a Congolese refugee, had been resettled Philadelphia with her children. In the U.S., her caseworker helped her find a factory job. But her pay was low and even with her full-time work, her family qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. But then Safi and her family moved from one side of the metro area to the other—a move of less than five miles, but across a county line— she hit an institutional roadblock. As a result of a computer error, her food stamps were cut off—unbeknownst to her.

SNAP, like many entitlement programs in the U.S., is a “means tested” program, a program which restricted benefits only to those who can prove they meet an established income requirement. While means testing has been suggested as a way to trim the cost of entitlements, in reality, the requirements lead to new costs administrative costs for the government and for recipients. Applicants face time consuming and taxing administrative burdens as they navigate bureaucracy, confusing forms, and complex procedures to prove they are deserving. For SNAP, the average applicant must complete a 90-minute interview or fill out a 17-page form, and provide as many as 10 documents about their assets. These burdens can become a barrier, especially for vulnerable households.

Globally, 82.5 million people—one out of every 95 people—are forcibly displaced. Few refugees make it to resettlement in countries like the United States, and those who do, like Safi, have a long journey ahead. In my forthcoming book, Seeking Refuge, Finding Inequality: Refugees Navigating Institutional Barriers, co-authored with Annette Lareau, we found that refugee families resettled to the U.S. have to navigate a wide range of complex institutions, such as banks, workplaces, schools, and social service programs, all at once. These institutions are rife with requirements and expectations. These hurdles increase the complexity and introduce opportunities for errors, which can become roadblocks impeding access to crucial resources—even resources for which the families are eligible.

When Safi moved from one county to another, she needed to transfer her SNAP benefits—an institutional hurdle. She took the bus to the office, met with an official, and her new address was added to her file. But, at the same time, there was another hurdle: the semi-annual reporting form to prove that Safi still qualified for food benefits was due—a “means testing” requirement. The two different parts of the organization were not coordinated as her caseworker, Wendy, recounted:

They sent the semiannual reporting form to Safi’s old address. So, we missed that form. When I followed up with the welfare office, they told me, “We sent the forms to this [older] address.” I told them, “She moved—and she came in here and told you she is moving.” The officer checked on it, “Yeah, she did.”

Hence, the welfare office confirmed to Safi’s case worker that Safi had not made an error; the office made an error when the recertification division was not apprised of the new address.

While each institutional error may seem unexpected, unpredictable, and unique, the roadblocks are not a product of individual mistakes or failures per se, but need to be understood as part of the social systems created to offer services to people who are in need. In particular, policymakers in the U.S. have been keen to promote means testing and to prevent fraud, requiring recipients prove their need for services. In these organizations, the complexity, scrutiny, and necessity of proving deservedness all increase the likelihood of errors and roadblocks (or what sociologist Charles Perrow called “normal accidents”).

The roadblock had consequences: Safi and her children lost their food benefits for weeks. This error was transformed into an institutional roadblock when a back-up system failed. Officers called her on the phone to confirm the change of address; when they couldn’t get ahold of her, they discontinued her food stamps. Wendy shook her head as she recalled Safi’s devastation:

She literally cried at that food stamp place and refused to leave, because she said she has no food to give to the children. They even didn’t understand that this person is a refugee with two kids, a single mom, struggling!

Wendy helped Safi submit the correct paperwork Friday morning, but it could take five to ten business days in order to be processed—an additional delay of a week or two. At this point, Safi was totally out of food. Fortunately, Wendy’s supervisor was able to get the family gift cards for food as a stopgap. But others were not so lucky.

Within this system, the onus was on clients, like Safi, and their caseworkers to solve the roadblock—and solving it was costly. Scheduling and attending appointments took time and possibly a bus fare across town. Figuring out complex rules was a mental load, and untangling roadblocks had psychological costs. Thus, even those roadblocks that were ultimately resolved proved costly. And, once solved, refugee families found themselves back where they started instead of moving ahead.

As House and Senate Democrats face mounting pressure to quickly pass President Biden’s Build Back Better Act—legislation that provides critical investments in child care, education, and health care—they should resist concessions over means testing. Means testing is bad policy, increasingly complexity and the opportunity for errors. For Safi and other refugee families, along with needy Americans, the very requirements to ensure eligibility can restrict access to eligibility.

Blair Sackett is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation examines forced displacement, and how refugees make ends meet within the structural constraints of Kakuma refugee camp. She is also author of the forthcoming book, Seeking Refuge, Finding Inequality: Refugees Navigating Institutional Barriers (University of California Press) with Annette Lareau, on the institutional barriers refugees face upon resettlement to the U.S.