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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How Bad Bureaucracy Sabotages Democracy

It’s not an accident that applying for subsidized housing or disability insurance is such a nightmare.

The core principle of democracy is self-governance in the form of policies that reflect the will of the people. As admirable as this sounds, the mechanisms that enable it are mundane and complex bureaucracies. Bureaucratic institutions translate the will of the people into practical legislation, and facilitate services from the government to the people. It is in that banal management of essential functions that our democracy hinges, and (at present) falls apart.

Most of those bureaucratic systems are made up of ostensibly apolitical bodies, like the United States Postal Service (USPS) or the Census Bureau. Yet the policies and budgets of those bureaus are dictated by politics, which is not inherently a bad thing. Politics, by definition, is nothing more than decision-making in large social groups. Therefore, a politician’s main job is to make these bureaucracies work for as many people as possible. However, all too often political ideologies that run counter to positive bureaucratic missions, like serving poor communities or providing accurate statistics on those communities, sabotage bureaucracies through intentional mismanagement or neglect. The overarching theme in bureaucratic failures can often be traced back to political animus, aimed not at the bureaucracy itself but indirectly at the disadvantaged (often minority) populations it seeks to serve. This is not a full-frontal assault on democracy, but a leak that slowly sinks the ship, drowning those in the boiler room first.

The scapegoats for bureaucratic ineptitude and inefficiency are typically low-level workers: a fed-up Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) clerk who may waste hours of your life, or the social worker who offers more excuses than help. But the real flaws begin at the top of the political food chain, with politicians who set regulatory or budgetary constraints for those beneath them. Generations of anti-bureaucratic rhetoric have reinforced their hostility, from New Deal critics like Calvin Coolidge claiming “unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted, it breaks down… and overwhelms Democracy” to Donald Trump painting bureaucrats as deep state conspirators. Decades of propaganda and negative experiences have cemented the American understanding of bureaucrats as incompetent, inconvenient, and hostile to providing actual services. 

The saboteurs of bureaucracy also rely on more mundane methods of minimizing democratic participation, like wasting the public’s time in long lines at the DMV or confusing them with byzantine rules and haphazard outreach for civic events like local elections or the census. These discreet roadblocks are even more taxing for people who rely on arcane systems like Section 8 for affordable housing, unemployment insurance, or Social Security and Disability income. Complaining about bureaucratic ineptitude feels useless—many times it’s impossible to determine how to even lodge a complaint. All of this further insulates politicians from the repercussions of their anti-democratic actions.

Let’s take a look at some particularly egregious examples of intentionally hobbled bureaucracies. 

Section 8: Homes for the “Deserving”

Like many Americans, I have had unpleasant personal experiences with Section 8, the federal program that provides affordable housing through housing vouchers or rent assistance. My in-laws depended on it for their small, suburban apartment. To help them qualify for and maintain their housing after recovering from a hospital stay, we had to wage a year-long battle with Section 8 bureaucrats. 

In the months of waiting for calls and delayed mail, I could count the conversations with a caseworker on one hand. Each of those conversations consisted of the caseworker listing reasons my in-laws shouldn’t qualify or questioning the validity of their statements. An ever-growing mountain of paperwork had to be mailed or faxed over. The non-exhaustive list of documents to qualify or recertify for Section 8 includes:

  • Proof of any and all income
  • Checking account balances
  • Proof of any other benefits such as Medicaid, Social Security, or Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps)
  • Birth certificates, social security cards, and photo IDs of every person living at the residence
  • School enrollment forms for any person living there
  • Notification and proof of hospital stays longer than three months

… all required in strict deadlines with rarely more than a week’s notice. The entire process seemed designed to make us give up. That was the standard operating procedure of the federal program that stands between millions of Americans and homelessness.

Many social workers themselves decry the attitudes that their own departments take in denying assistance to those who need it most. But the leaders and policies of these departments enforce a suspicious and combative stance toward the people they are meant to serve. The very function of Section 8 is undermined by a historically bipartisan political ideology that views homelessness as a choice and housing as a privilege to be earned. This perspective of seeing poverty as a moral failing, not a systemic one, changes bureaucracies meant to help people into another insurmountable obstacle.

My family’s experience was just a glimpse at the many systemic barriers built into the Section 8 housing program. For a single parent who must work full-time and care for children, the task of obtaining or maintaining housing assistance is an immense burden on top of their everyday stressors. The process itself can take costly years of waiting, with little notice of when to provide documents, appear at hearings, or be ready to move. Actually navigating and qualifying for assistance can be an impossible task for those without reliable transit, a permanent mailing address, or a trove of personal documents easily at hand. Unfortunately, those tend to be the people who need housing assistance the most.

Even residents who receive the reluctant assistance of Section 8 are under constant threat of the government finding reasons to disqualify them, leaving them homeless. Recipients can be evicted or lose benefits for a litany of reasons, including drug use or mere suspicion of gang activity. A single arrest, even without a conviction, can be enough to disqualify an entire family for affordable housing. This “one strike” policy is ostensibly meant to protect residents, but its overbroad application has a discriminatory effect on the most at-risk populations.

Of course these barriers to public housing, like so many forms of discrimination, affect Black and Latinx people at higher rates. In a country where minority populations are more likely to be stopped or arrested by police, falsely convicted, and criminalized for drug use, policies that deprive individuals of assistance due to such infractions penalize their communities as a whole. According to reviews by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), their own criminal history policies have a discriminatory effect on minority residents.

After all of the work it takes to actually receive a housing voucher or rent assistance, many people still face hostility and discrimination. Many landlords are reluctant to accept housing vouchers, even though they would receive full rent payments or property tax credits from the government to make up for it. They cite excuses like excess paperwork or inspections to make sure units are habitable to get around laws that ban source-of-income discrimination. This forces Section 8 recipients to live in areas with fewer economic opportunities and higher crime rates. Through stereotypes furthered by legislators themselves, Section 8 assistance often reinforces the segregation it was meant to address.

My family lost their Section 8 benefits because through extended hospital stays and visits with family that could care for them, they could not prove sufficient need for a place to live. Their health problems left them unable to represent themselves, which made caseworkers skeptical of their claims, and insufficient notice of their health decline made them undeserving of housing assistance. Housing assistance seems to be targeted only to those who have hit rock bottom, while punishing them if their conditions leave them unable to navigate a mountain of paperwork. We were fortunate enough to survive without it, but it meant hard choices about moving or finding nursing homes—choices that all too often drive families into crises.

Housing is an essential pillar in everybody’s life, one that often goes overlooked if you’ve never had to worry about it. Living without a home puts people at risk in a multitude of ways. People who have experienced homelessness are far more likely to also suffer from drug addiction or be arrested, both of which can disqualify them from getting the housing that could help break that cycle. When the housing insecure are forced to live in more impoverished areas with less economic opportunity, they are that much further from ever breaking free of poverty. In this way, the Section 8 bureaucracy not only fails its mission, but actively works to disenfranchise and subjugate those it is meant to serve.

Unemployment Insurance: Never Get Too Comfortable

Unemployment insurance (UI) is one of the most vital welfare programs in the United States. Not only does it help keep people and families afloat through personal emergencies, but it helps keep the economy running during wider financial crises. Yet despite its importance, less than one-third of unemployed Americans receive unemployment benefits. This past March, as I was one of millions navigating shell-shocked unemployment offices, I got a glimpse of the myriad reasons unemployment income is so restricted. Between the many weeks on hold it took to get through to UI departments, having to prove my previous income, and appealing for back pay, it took over a month to receive any financial support at all. That wait and effort is not feasible for many working families struggling to pay rent or put food on the table. 

The pandemic made most of the country painfully aware of how complex, outdated, and insufficient unemployment insurance is in most states. Throughout this spring and summer, website crashes and long waits on the phone became infamous tropes of applying for unemployment income. The abysmal failure of these support systems can be traced to short-sighted policies. States base their UI staffing levels and funding on the unemployment rates of previous years. Since the Great Recession, as unemployment has gone down, resources and funding for the departments have gone down as well. That systemic flaw ensures the neglect of the low-income working class who are always more deeply affected by capitalism’s predictable, periodic crises.

Like most welfare programs, unemployment insurance is designed to keep recipients from ever getting “too comfortable” with financial support. Among political elites there is wide and bipartisan resistance to expanding unemployment so it supports more people for longer periods of time. While the CARES Act added a temporary $600 bonus to unemployment benefits, many lawmakers criticized it for being too generous and disincentivizing workers from re-entering the labor pool. Those criticisms have gained traction despite ample evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile many states have meager unemployment income limits, sometimes less than $100 a week, that leave many people unable to survive even with the additional $600 dollars a week. 

These chronic shortfalls of unemployment insurance become even clearer in times of crisis. After the financial crash of 2008, unemployment benefits needed to be bolstered by Congress, which was rationalized by the need to support the economy during mass job loss. These patchwork expansions never address the underlying issues of the system, but only work to keep the economy afloat and middle class workers above water, leaving behind more gig and service workers to sink.

The same idea of “the unworthy poor” that hampers other welfare programs informs many of the restrictions that lead to denial of unemployment benefits. When state bureaucracies deem job loss is the employee’s “fault,” they often discriminate against poorer people struggling to enter the workforce, such as the worker who cannot afford reliable transit and thus make it to work on time. They may also deny benefits to workers who did not make enough money before losing their income. This often leaves out underpaid service workers, some of whom make barely $2 an hour before tips. Such regulations show the attitude of paternalism that treats income loss and poverty as a measure of weak character.

Even after receiving benefits, most states have demeaning work search requirements in place, which force recipients to prove they are continuously applying to jobs in order to keep receiving benefits. Partially this is intended to maintain discipline over the workforce and deny economically disenfranchised people the right to rest or self-care. It is also another justification for depriving them of benefits. Like with Section 8, that denial seems to be as much the goal of many agencies as providing actual assistance. 

Over the years, state agencies for unemployment insurance have “focused on over payments and on fraud detection… over paying benefits quickly,” according to Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project. Even as the country faces historic levels of unemployment, an economy and a people ravaged by a pandemic, agencies have been denying benefits and seeking recompense from out of work Americans. Some states have asked individuals to pay back thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits, because they claim paperwork was filed incorrectly or the recipients received overpayments. While agencies make workers wait months for payments that don’t meet basic living needs, they will swiftly pursue any hint of somebody receiving “too much” assistance.

These convoluted systems work to keep people in poverty and even out of the workforce. But they also have the effect of dampening political participation. Despite the conservative image of protestors as “jobless millennials living with their parents,” the burden of unemployment precludes most opportunities for activism. With time-consuming work searches, the stress of paying next month’s rent, and the depression caused by it all, there is little time or mental space for political involvement. People without disposable income don’t have money to contribute to political causes. And of course, they cannot risk arrests at a protest that may lead to them being fired or losing housing assistance. This means that the representation of people who rely on social benefits is diminished, which leads to further neglect of those systems.

Social Security: Means-Testing the Right to Live 

One of the most insidious manifestations of paternalistic bureaucracy is through Social Security and Disability regulations. The standards to qualify for either can vary based on different federal and state standards. Behind those barriers lie not only supplemental income, but several other assistance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or SNAP. These programs provide lifelines for the most vulnerable populations, yet they are the most difficult to apply and qualify for, so they often fail to serve those most in need. By no coincidence, both programs are targets of regular criticism as wasteful entitlements. Hate-laden speeches that accuse recipients of being “welfare queens” and callous reporting that decries a “culture of disability” have reinforced animus against social security in the minds of “fiscally conservative”voters, and enabled politicians from both parties to steadily chip away at benefits.

Battles with disability programs have been a constant presence for most of my life. Growing up with two siblings who had autism, visits from social workers and hearings over benefits were constant sources of stress for my single mother. Even with their clear cut diagnosis, the status and precise measurement of my siblings’ disability was a constant legal question. The answer to that question—how disabled are you, really?— determined whether they would receive therapies and special education that could help them function and eventually achieve independence. 

However, in order to keep that assistance, their independence had to be all but impossible. Regulations like a low asset maximum, which dictated my adult brother could not have more than $2,000 in his bank account, meant he could not afford an apartment and still receive Medicare. These low asset limits force poverty and financial dependence onto people with disabilities who may be able to work or take care of themselves, but cannot afford exorbitant health bills or housing without Medicare or Social Security assistance.

Similar regulations meant my other brother could not keep working the full-time job that provided essential stability to his daily routine. The small income of his work, combined with the Social Security income he was required to take, put him over the asset limit. With savvy from a lifetime of battling bureaucratic regulations, and the minimal legal consultation which millions still cannot find or afford, my mother was able to keep his wages in a disability-specific trust and maintain benefits. This obscure loophole was ignored or dismissed by social workers who had spent their careers telling people in the same situation to quit their jobs. The majority of families who struggle to provide expensive care for disabled family members do not have the resources to maneuver through these bureaucracies and find arcane legal technicalities. For them, both working and any sense of financial independence is a privilege our society does not allow.

Ironically, the conservative hypervigilance about welfare programs “disincentivizing work” has forced dependence on people. These regulations that require deep poverty for any assistance, while precluding any meaningful employment or savings, create a deadly poverty trap for people living with disabilities. It leads to the much higher rates of unemployment and poverty for people with disabilities. Even those who work are twice as likely to live below poverty level. Because of these poverty requirements, many people with disabilities who could work are denied financial and/or medical benefits if they choose to do so.

While attacks on Medicare as “socialized medicine” are commonplace for Republican administrations, pushes to limit Medicare and other entitlements have had historically bipartisan support. In 1996, Bill Clinton put in place some of the most onerous restrictions on entitlements with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. By emphasizing work incentives and giving states wide discretion to distribute funds, the Democratic administration set the groundwork for future state and federal administrations to make assistance programs less effective and more difficult to obtain. The Trump administration has raised these attacks to new levels, attempting to cut funding for Social Security in the midst of a pandemic, and imposing more paternalistic regulations that would disqualify people from disability income while invading their privacy to determine “work eligibility.” This rhetoric, embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, only serves to devalue and dehumanize people who depend on these programs.

For so many, the only option is to remain in poverty. Losing or even waiting for these benefits can mean literal life or death for people living with disabilities. In the long process to receive federal benefits by qualifying for state standards, which can take years, people might be unable to afford necessary medication or in-patient programs. By tying up medical benefits and treatments in lengthy legal hearings, people with disabilities are not only devalued, but often sentenced to death or poverty based on legal technicalities.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced Social Security and other New Deal welfare programs in 1935, he envisioned them as the validation of basic economic rights, recognizing that “individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.” But the application and underlying philosophy of welfare today sees it as a privilege earned only by proving sufficient suffering. By trapping vulnerable people in poverty, it sets off a domino effect where any one vulnerability, such as disability or job loss, can lead to a cascade of others such as homelessness, hunger, and arrest. And along with sending families into crisis and leaving individuals to starve, the failures of welfare programs take mental and economic tolls on whole communities, dampening their collective political power.

Voting Systems: One Person*, One Vote (*Restrictions May Apply)

The mitochondria of functional democracy, voting systems, are actually some of the most complex and massive bureaucratic functions in the country. In fact, “the voting system” is not one system at all, but an amalgamation of multiple localized bureaucracies. Because there is no national election system, states run their own elections, often implementing various standards with little oversight from the federal government. The decentralized nature of America’s elections allows ample opportunity for manipulation within the bureaucratic mechanisms for voting.

In the most recent and possibly most dreaded election of this country’s history, there were actually several examples of competent, functioning state election systems. A thorough hand recount in Georgia confirmed the accuracy of Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state. However, confidence in voting systems’ competence is undermined by partisan influence that obstructs democracy, such as the delay of certifying legitimate votes in Michigan by Republican appointees who refused to do their job. While well-managed bureaucracies are integral to fair elections, generations of rhetoric painting bureaucrats as the enemy of democracy has fed dangerous conspiracy theories about fake voters and rigged voting machines, which in turn fuel undemocratic legal challenges as well as violent extremism.

While those conspiracy theories are dangerous and unfounded, there is plenty of reason for criticism of the mismanagement of several state elections. Even in progressive local governments, where voting rights enjoy broad support and stronger protections, threats loom due to poor funding, mismanagement, and the meddling of private companies. This year, many voters in New York were disenfranchised by delays and clerical errors that led to thousands of votes being thrown out in the Democratic primary this summer. The inefficiency of local governments can lead states to over-rely on private companies to fulfill constitutional functions. But that just leads to less accountability for other voting debacles—like a failed, insecure app in the Iowa primary caucuses or mislabeled absentee ballots in New York’s general election. The political rhetoric that attacks government bureaucracies while praising private industries has allowed those industries to bungle voting systems while also profiting off them.

These logistical debacles receive outsized media attention, which leads to further criticism and popular distrust of election bureaucracies. Yet they’re not the biggest problem facing the U.S.’ voting systems. Much more insidious are the methods of intentional disenfranchisement built into voting systems throughout the country. Not too long removed from the days of literacy tests and poll taxes, methods of voter suppression have since become more sophisticated and engrained in the legal code. After the Supreme Court dismantled large parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, numerous voter identification laws were passed throughout the country. These laws use existing forms of bureaucratic discrimination to disenfranchise voters. 

For the  2020 election, 35 states had in place some ID requirements to vote. Many states strictly require government photo IDs. Such requirements seem innocuous to those who can spend a work day sitting in a DMV to renew a license or get a new one when they move to a different state. But there are many voters who cannot afford a car, so they’ve never needed a license. Some  don’t have other personal documents like a Social Security card because of turbulent upbringings. Others can’t even afford to apply for one. These factors apply in particular to disenfranchised groups such as poor rural voters, elderly and young voters, and minority voters. A study conducted by the University of California in San Diego that looked at the impact of strict photo ID laws found discriminatory effects that widened the turnout gaps between white and Latinx voters, and almost doubled the gap between white and Black voters, both in primary and general elections.

Similarly discriminatory racial disparities were also found in droves in the varied mail-in voting restrictions in this year’s elections. With the same vague and unnecessary constraints of ID laws, stringent mail-in voting laws in states like Texas worked to suppress the votes of those who couldn’t prove sufficient disability to the state, and therefore couldn’t qualify for mail-in ballots. In states that require signature matches or specific postage requirements, those protocols disproportionately impacted the votes of minority communities. Wherever inefficient and unnecessary barriers are set up in bureaucratic systems, it is almost always communities of color that end up being excluded.

In addition to discriminatory rules, funding cuts for election systems also lead to disenfranchisement of minority voters. Despite record-breaking turnout, many states downscaled their elections operations by closing polling places this year. Some states closed as many as 80 percent of their in-person polling locations. While a number of states claimed this was in response to the dangers of in-person voting during a pandemic, the fact that fewer locations led to longer lines and bigger crowds to vote betrayed the real motivation of that “safety precaution.” Most closings were just results of budget cuts, often aimed at metropolitan areas. In many southern states like Texas and Georgia, the majority of polling locations in densely populated, majority Black counties were closed down. The hours-long lines, even throughout early voting, undoubtedly suppressed the votes of those who couldn’t afford to spend all day in line or travel long distances to cast a vote far from home.

Many of these bureaucratic barriers are set up by politicians for self-serving, undemocratic purposes. By suppressing voter turnout along racial or economic lines—either by imposing discriminatory voting laws or closing polling locations in major urban centers or near college campuses—elected officials manage to suppress the voices that might hold them accountable for dismantling welfare programs. A lack of federal voting rights protections sets these individual systems up for systemic failure. As the systems see more errors and wider voter suppression, the public trust and political engagement that make this whole system work is whittled away.

Census 2020: Deciding Who Counts

While elections reveal the flaws in disparate, hyper-localized bureaucracies, more centralized bureaucracies are also subject to mismanagement and funding cuts. In a year of concurrent systemic debacles, the election may have overshadowed the most consequential civic tradition: the U.S. Census. Consistent and preventable shortfalls in the census affects whole communities on a nationwide scale, and disenfranchises them for generations to come. 

Every 10 years the federal government undertakes the time-consuming, laborious task of enumerating every living person in the country. This count is not a simple matter of record-keeping for the sake of record-keeping. It sets standards for public funding of local services, which sets the level of support for everything from trash collection to public school funding to medical resources. The count also determines political representation such as the number of aldermen in a city government or legislators in the federal House of Representatives. Census counts provide a roadmap for many of the bureaus and systems integral to the growth and survival of communities. Mistakes in the form of undercounts or overcounts can drastically impact political voice, and are all but impossible to undo in the short term. Like a big bureaucratic train pulling into the station every 10 years, the census has the power to bring entire communities on the track to prosperity, or it can abandon them at the station.

  This year, I got to see exactly how people get overlooked and left behind. Due to the insufficient unemployment income of my state, I found myself working for the Census in late summer as the agency scrambled to reach hard to count populations under changing deadlines. Despite hectic training and operational confusion over a whiplash of court rulings, working for the Census was actually a great gig. Through strict adherence to labor laws, opportunities for overtime, and pay well above the meager federal minimum wage, government workforce positions offer some of the most stable employment for many chronically underemployed communities. For generations, government jobs like census work and the USPS have allowed systematically disadvantaged Black families a pathway into the middle class. This also reveals another layer of disenfranchisement when these agencies are undermined and underfunded, leading to fewer hours and layoffs that remove one of the few avenues of stable employment for so many across the country.

While it provided good pay and flexible hours, my stint with the U.S. Census Bureau was defined by insufficient training, faulty technology, and overwhelming frustration from a community that felt assaulted by census workers. This is not a reflection on the dedicated and competent workers within the Census Bureau, nor on community members themselves. My direct managers were generous with their time and the majority of respondents I spoke with truly wanted to do their civic duty. Rather, the problems I encountered were the inevitable result of a vital, massive bureaucracy that has been neglected by the federal government. In the final two years leading up to the 2020 Census, unprecedented funding cuts resulted in less testing of new cost-saving methods and administrative data. That lack of preparation laid the groundwork for disaster as response rates dropped due to the pandemic. This left many of the hardest to reach populations—like immigrants, non-English speakers, and the housing insecure—undercounted.

  Those and miscounts are not accidental. For an administration set on breaking norms and abdicating its most basic functions, the Census became another battleground in the war against functional bureaucracies. That war is in fact an electoral strategy to disenfranchise minority and immigrant communities by hobbling the bureaucracy that delegates them representation. I saw how effective that strategy was firsthand, as I worked for the Census during its blitz to count these populations. Many non-English speaking respondents and immigrants, whether from Brazil or Ukraine, were reluctant to speak to anybody from the government. Others wanted to be counted, but with deadlines approaching it was more and more difficult to get translators or bilingual enumerators to reach them in time.

All of these hurdles in conducting an accurate census were exacerbated by funding cuts or outright intimidation by the Trump administration. In an attempt to purposely undercount immigrants, and thereby further invalidate their political power, the administration sought to impose a question about immigration status to dissuade immigrant residents from responding and even sued to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count for purposes of allocating political representation. While both these efforts have failed so far, they clearly had the intended effect of suppressing minority counts. Along with the administration’s successful push to move up census deadlines, this will likely be the most inaccurate census count in decades.

When communities are undercounted, they lose out on necessary resources and have a diminished democratic voice.To illustrate, an undercount of approximately 7,000 people in Minneapolis neighborhoods in 2010 led to the loss of two city council members and $200 million of federal funding over the next 10 years. These undercounts are often inflicted on the same people and communities across the country. Post-census analyses of the 2010 census showed a continuation of trends that overcounted more affluent and white respondents, such as suburban homeowners, and undercounted lower-income, minority respondents, mostly renters in large urban areas. These are not just clerical errors, but real, measurable harms inflicted on entire communities. An undercount of just 1 percent, the average error in 2010, means over three million residents could be missed, and trillions of dollars of funding lost.

The fact that the most chronically undercounted communities are ones that already have higher rates of unemployment and homelessness only reinforces the trends of underrepresentation. Disproportionate undercounts occur in areas that need resources the most, such as immigrant communities facing high infection rates from COVID-19, or rural areas ravaged by the opioid crisis that desperately need funding for detox clinics. The slashed funding and timelines for the Census Bureau will have detrimental impacts on communities that need not only financial support, but real democratic representation.

The repercussions of a botched census or an exclusionary voting system do not end in 2020, but will shape our lives for years to come. It can be easy to lose faith in, and even despise, those bureaucratic systems when time after time they exclude and overlook your community. There is a righteous anger and frustration one feels after the 100th phone call with a social worker who wants to deny an application for assistance, or after being told to quit a job in order to get medication. When each of these systems feels like another wall, of course people will get tired of pounding against them.

While  this corruption very intentionally breeds mistrust and frustration toward bureaucracy—and government in general—it should also serve to underline the importance of free, functional bureaucratic systems. The success and expansion of these systems is not just humane, but necessary for a truly representative government. Rather than railing against these systems, giving in to calls to dismantle them or privatize them completely, we need to understand and speak up for the importance of our bureaucracies. Championing bureaucracy does not sound as admirable or important as pushing for racial justice and economic security, but those ideals of justice are only achievable when the people’s voices are heard. And democratically elected representatives can only truly work for the people that elect them if bureaucracies work for the people that rely on them.

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