Reducing these burdens can have an enormous impact on people’s lives. For free school meals, the Department of Agriculture has adopted a “direct certification” program, which means that if the locality or the school district has enough information to know that children are eligible, they are automatically enrolled. In recent years, more than 11 million children have benefited from the program (about 91 percent of the eligible population). Simplification of the FAFSA dramatically increases the likelihood that low-income students will apply for aid and eventually enroll in college. A number of states have adopted automatic voter registration, which means that if eligible citizens interact with a state agency (for example, by receiving a driver’s license), they are registered as voters. In 2016, Oregon’s automatic registration program produced more than 250,000 new voters; almost 100,000 of them voted. The private sector can also do a lot more to reduce sludge—for example, it can help people choosing among health care plans by simplifying options and explaining what is likely to be their best choice.
Paperwork burdens are often a product of decisions by public officials. At the national level, those decisions come from Congress or from administrative agencies, which have diverse motivations. Many of their goals are legitimate. Perhaps most important, they might be trying to ensure that people are actually eligible for the benefits for which they are applying. In addition, officials might be trying to collect data that they can use to improve their programs. Sometimes they use paperwork burdens as a kind of rationing device, limiting licenses, permits, or money to people who are willing to run some kind of gauntlet.