Spotlight Exclusives

Digital ID Credential Could Help Those With Greatest Need Get Benefits

Peter Muennig Peter Muennig, posted on

The COVID-19 pandemic had few silver linings but one small one might be the advantages of easing access—using telephone and digital processes—for social welfare benefit application and management. Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researcher Peter Muennig has published a new article making the case for a national digital credential in the U.S. as well as doing some preliminary trials of such a system in New York City during the pandemic. Muennig spoke with Spotlight recently about his work and his effort to preach the benefits of a digital credential systems for marginalized communities. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So, tell us how this project began.

It all got started back in with the beginning of COVID. I was contacted by the Partnership for New York City,  which is the link between private industry and the state and city government. They were looking to develop a credential that would basically say, this person has been tested for PCR, or this person has been vaccinated. Ultimately, as it evolved, it would also serve as a sort of identity credential. I’d been working with digital identity people for a while on different, ideas, and it just sort of struck me that, this is something we should have had way before COVID, right? We should have all of our systems talking to each other, which has been part of my research.  I also was really struck by countries that did have their digital identities and data together and how well they dealt with COVID. South Korea immediately was able to trace every single person who tested positive and where they had been and who they had been in contact with. And in countries who have this—Estonia is a place that just rolled one out—it’s not just for emergency situations. You can use these systems for day-to-day governance.

It’s much like when you give Google permission to let you sign into another site but it’s much more secure, all the permission is always on you, and it’s run by the government. It’s not really hackable because you have at least two factors of identity to login. In Estonia, for example, they use a card in addition to your user name and password; both of these things have to match up. The government doesn’t have the right to access your data and neither does a private sector entity until you give a permission. Every time anybody wants to access your data, they have to ask you, and because of that, it’s really easy to link different systems to different systems because there’s no real barrier to proving who you are. You are who you are. If I need to apply for Medicaid, I don’t need to fill out any forms. I give the system permission to access this data and then I have the benefit.

And did you find that there is a barrier for lower-income populations that may not have access to the internet?

That’s something that actually, counterintuitively, works better in this kind of environment, in a tech environment, than it does in a pen and paper environment. The reason for that is because I think that just the burden of accessing all that paperwork that you need for an in-person government application is much greater than the burden of tracking down a relative with a cell phone and internet access.

Have you been able to try this with social welfare systems and programs?

I do randomized controlled trials of social welfare policies and in these studies, we actually don’t use digital identity, and these studies are really hard to do because of that. What we do instead is we go to each participant, and we say, can we access your unemployment insurance data? Can we access your income tax data? Can we use your access your housing data from HUD? And then they have to fill out forms and say, yes, you can.

Is there any state that is doing this on a pilot basis?

No state in the U.S., but there are many foreign states. India has essentially done it and it’s made a huge dent in poverty—a large number of people living under $3 a day are now on welfare because of these identity systems. I think it’s very encouraging.

And do you have any estimate on how much of a difference this might make in the U.S. in terms of people who would be using these benefits?

I think there’s two answers to your question.  One answer is the raw statistics, and I think it’s probably going to create about a 15-percentage point improvement in access to these systems. But the most important part of that those 15% that aren’t getting access to these benefits are actually the ones that have the greatest need. These are folks who have mental illness, or they’ve got five children, or they don’t have a car, or have some sort of physical disability but haven’t been able to apply for SSI. Those are the people that are just sort of left out and large number of those people become homeless as a result. I think we are all aware of this exploding homeless problem and people often wonder, if we have a welfare system, why does this happen? One of the reasons is that there is no easy way of enrolling those folks for benefits usually.

What’s next for your ID work?

What I’m working on now building public awareness and writing thought pieces that can make our research easier. There are the more technical pieces that demonstrate how these systems work, but then there’s trying to make the case on how we can do this in a country that is as divided as ours. Mostly what I’m focusing on is that technical aspects of how we might do this in the U.S., given that the experiment has really already been successfully conducted in other places.

And to the political question, who do you do that. It seems demonstrably true that a system like this is more efficient than the current system. But how do you get around privacy and security concerns?

Right. So, I think that the way you do that is, you start to roll it out in select geographic areas, so the government can see how it’s received. We won’t really know until we start to roll it out, but we definitely should not do it in the way the government usually does things, which is to either legislate it or simply implement in a widespread way.

I guess I was thinking more about it in terms of the political resistance, but of course you would have to deal with the individual user resistance as well.

I think, I think that’s right in terms of the political resistance, I think that that is overcome at the individual level. You could imagine rolling it out amongst small populations in different states—in a politically conservative state, you would get one kind of reaction and in a politically liberal area, you would get another kind of reaction. But you would learn from both.


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