‘I don’t know nothing about that’: How “learning costs” undermine COVID-related efforts to make SNAP and WIC more accessible

AuthorCarolyn Barnes,Virginia Riel
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(10) 1902 –1930
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211073948
‘I don’t know nothing
about that’: How
“learning costs”
undermine COVID-
related efforts to make
SNAP and WIC more
Carolyn Barnes1 and Virginia Riel2
Scholars have focused on administrative burden or the costs of claiming
public benefits. Learning, psychological, and compliance costs can discourage
program participation and benefit redemption. Using 60 in-depth qualitative
interviews with participants of the SNAP and WIC programs, we offer
thick descriptions of how beneficiaries experience compliance, learning,
and redemption costs—a subset of learning costs regarding how to redeem
benefits—amidst COVID-19 policy changes. Although policy changes
were poised to reduce compliance costs and ease conditions that create
redemption costs in each program, the learning costs of policy changes
prevented many program participants from experiencing the benefits of
these policy transformations.
poverty, administrative burden, social policy, nutrition assistance
1Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
2North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Carolyn Barnes, Duke University, 201 Science Dr., Durham, NC 27708-0187, USA.
Email: carolyn.barnes@duke.edu
1073948AAS0010.1177/00953997211073948Administration & SocietyBarnes and Riel
Barnes and Riel 1903
The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to acute economic hardship for many
American families. The pandemic has ushered in record job loss, economic
precarity, and food insecurity, all of which have increased demands for public
assistance programs (Moynihan & Herd, 2010). The COVID-19 pandemic
has also highlighted the barriers to accessing safety-net programs. Scholars
and observers have documented how unprecedented demand for unemploy-
ment insurance has strained state systems, leaving many families unable to
access benefits (Aaron, 2020). Likewise, initial reports show that families
have experienced high levels of food insecurity and limited access to nutri-
tion assistance programs (Gassman-Pines et al., 2020).
These kinds of barriers to assistance are not new. Scholars have long
documented the low uptake of means-tested programs and attributed low
uptake to the challenges of applying for and maintaining benefits
(Friedrichsen et al., 2018; Hanratty, 2006; Homonoff & Somerville, 2020;
Sommers et al., 2012). Individuals who are eligible for programs are
unaware of benefits, do not know how to apply, and misunderstand pro-
gram rules (Herd & Moynihan, 2019). Application and recertification pro-
cesses are too complex, requiring an appointment, documents, and lengthy
application forms, or worse, the stigma and stress of accessing benefits
deter applicants (Barnes & Henly, 2018; Heinrich, 2016; Moynihan et al.,
2015; Nisar, 2018). Public policy scholars conceptualize these challenges
as administrative burden or the onerous experience of policy implementa-
tion (Moynihan et al., 2015). Taken together, onerous experiences can
deter eligible individuals from using benefit programs.
Recent scholarship recognizes the need to understand mechanisms of
administrative burden (Peeters, 2020), particularly from the perspective of
clients as they work to gain information about how to access and use benefits
(Masood & Azfar Nisar, 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars
continue to question the mechanisms that create administrative burdens,
demonstrating the relationship between compliance and psychological costs
(Baekgaard et al., 2021) and how individuals experience barriers to public
assistance programs (Camillo, 2021). In fact, clients must overcome learning
hurdles by developing awareness of programs and their rules even before
confronting barriers to compliance such as providing documentation (see
Camillo, 2021).
Although the novel Coronavirus outbreak has revealed the weaknesses
of safety-net programs, policy responses to COVID-19 have introduced
policy innovations that can help scholars, policymakers, and practitioners
understand the relationship between learning and compliance costs from

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