Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Whatever Happened To Making Government Work?

Government forms
iStockphoto.com

I have been following the elections, like a lot of people. And when I got tired of the mudslinging, I thought about getting a sandwich or turning on Jon Stewart.

But no, I decided to download some forms.

Call me crazy, but I just thought I would take a look at government — not as lofty speeches or grand debates about government's proper role, and not even as zingy one-liners about people's sexual orientation, intelligence or their manhood, but government as most of us actually live it. That means that Wizard of Oz behind the curtain that we turn to when we need a hand with something, like paying for college or medicine, or keeping our streets or communities safe. And the government that also turns to us for the dough to pay for all that.

Can I just tell you? It won't shock you to learn that it was not a pretty sight. Not butt ugly, mind you (there were no signs up like in the olden days: "these jobs for men only" or "this housing aid restricted to neighborhoods for white people"), just lots of twists and turns to make life even more complicated and frustrating than it is already. And that's all the more infuriating when you realize you are paying for it.

Now, anybody who fills out his or her own tax forms already knows what I am talking about. And why so many of us feel the need to pay somebody to do something we all have to do is a story in itself. But I decided to go deeper, because of a book I talked about previously called Creating an Opportunity Society by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, both researchers at the Brookings Institution.

They mentioned the form students must fill out to apply for federal financial aid. It is 127 questions long — and that matters because the research is very clear that the applications from low-income students increase when they don't have to labor through such complicated paperwork.

I couldn't get the form because I am not applying for aid (don't need any at the moment, thank you very much). But I did download the worksheet you use to figure out how to fill it out, and the worksheet itself says the average amount of time needed to fill it out is 2 1/2 hours. Now sure, and that assumes you have parents who are coherent and organized enough to supply you with the tax forms and other income information needed to fill out the form — parents who are not, for example, on drugs, in jail or just unfamiliar with, or afraid of, paperwork.

Maybe you think that's a small price to pay for the privilege of taxpayer-funded support — but aren't these the very kids we want to take advantage of these kinds of programs?

And then there is the other end of life — how about veterans' benefits?

I downloaded the form for a program to provide supplemental support for veterans who are not already on full disability. There were no less than 15 different agencies listed as custodians for the records needed to verify one's service, which might be acceptable if we lived in a time when records were kept on 3 by 5 cards, and not available with a few computer keystrokes.

Just imagine how quickly the government would tell you where you served and how long if you had done something horrible, like opened fire on your fellow soldiers, for example, at a pre-deployment meeting.

So why is it so complicated to get help when you have done everything right? And imagine trying to fill out those forms if you are ill or have dementia, or are already overwhelmed caring for a sick spouse?

Now I have heard a lot this election year about witchcraft and manning up and cutting taxes and gay bashing, but I haven't heard a damn thing about making the government we already have — and presumably agree on — work better for the people paying for it.

So what else is new? Guess I'll go get that sandwich now.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues