Many Barriers Hinder Rural Use of Government Programs­­­

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Older Americans, low-income workers, and people with disabilities are over-represented in remote areas of the country. But rural enrollment in federal and state programs tends to be low, creating a shortage of government services where they are critically needed.

One source of the problem is the numerous barriers to getting information about, and enrolling in, programs like Social Security disability and retirement benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Medicaid health insurance program for workers with very low incomes.

Researchers recently conducted a systematic review of studies, newspaper articles and government reports published between 2012 and 2022 to get a better sense of why access to government assistance is more difficult for rural residents.

Two of the many examples of people with limited information about and access to government programs are homeless veterans, who are disproportionately represented in rural populations, and former inmates being released from rural prisons. Their disability rates are above average, and they may have difficulty getting information about, or applying for, Social Security’s disability benefits. Another important program is the benefit paid to the survivors of deceased spouses who had been getting Social Security retirement benefits. Knowledge of that program in the general population is sparse.

As these programs increasingly migrate online, much of the information gap can be explained by limited broadband access: 22 percent of rural residents lack access to the internet, compared with less than 2 percent in cities.

A related issue for disadvantaged populations, rural and urban, has been the transition by government agencies to using electronic applications for benefits. Digital illiteracy among Black and Hispanic populations in particular is two and three times higher, respectively, than for Whites. Older Americans are generally less comfortable using the internet but so are the disabled. Only 64 percent of people with disabilities go online, compared with 83 percent of the non-disabled.

Even when people know how to use the Internet, they encounter problems in the form of badly designed or outdated government websites and poorly written directions for submitting applications online. One study found that nearly half of federal websites failed at least one test of accessibility to people with disabilities. The quality of state and local government websites that are often gateways to federal programs is also highly inconsistent.

The situation as it relates to Social Security benefits has been exacerbated by developments on a couple of other fronts. Private-sector employers used to explain Social Security retirement and disability benefits to new hires during orientations but the practice has been curtailed over the past decade. The U.S. Social Security Administration also used to regularly mail statements to workers showing how much they can expect when they retire. Now this information is mainly available on the MySocialSecurity website. If a rural resident wants to speak to a Social Security representative in person, it may require arranging transportation or driving a long distance to one of the agency’s local offices. 

To improve communication of Social Security program information, the researchers propose that governments use multiple, proven strategies to reach underserved rural populations. One idea would be to hire community liaisons who can support applicants who don’t have internet access or have complex cases.

People who try to apply online may need more support too, the researchers said. They recommend that application instructions and forms use plain language that is easily understood. These changes would make documents more accessible to people with intellectual disabilities and to the public at large.

Government benefits are one way to reduce inequality. Ensuring that rural residents know about these programs and don’t encounter barriers when applying are first steps.

To read this study by Megan Henly, Shreya Paul, Debra L. Brucker, Andrew Houtenville, Kelly Nye-Lengerman and Stacia Bach, see “Barriers and Communications Preferences of Rural Populations: a Scoping Review.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.