Sunday, November 25, 2012

I'm Just a Government Who Cain't Say 'No'

    In case you hadn't heard, Benefits.gov is celebrating its 10th anniversary.  (Don't worry, I think there's still time to get a card.)

    As you can see, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis already beat you to it with her best wishes, but better late than never.

    According to a recent Washington Post story, 96% of Americans have received benefits at one time or another.  In case you are one of the 4%, here's your chance!  Benefits.gov describes itself as "the official benefits website of the U.S. government, providing citizens with an online eligibility prescreening tool to help you find government benefits that you may be eligible to receive".  I decided the best way to celebrate this milestone (the "Tin" anniversary for you traditionalists) was to use the handy Benefit Finder to see not what I could do for my country, but what my country could do for me.

    Just to make things interesting, I decided to answer the questions in such a way that would limit the possible benefits as much as possible.  I ran a few scenarios, finally settling on the one I believe produces the minimum returns.  However, if anyone can beat my low score, I'll link to you (within reason.)  I am linking to my full list of responses to the questions, but in the interest of space, I'll briefly summarize.

    The composite I created (let's call him Benny Seeker) is a 32 year old, single white male.  He has a master's degree, no debt to speak of, and earns $500,000 per year.  He has 12 years experience in his field, is already eligible for retirement, and has never worked for the government.   Benny has no dependents, no disabilities, and no military service, and no one in his family is disabled or has any military service either.  He has no health problems and is fully insured.  Finally, I left his citizenship in doubt by selecting "other" for citizenship status.

    In a perfect world, the website would return a "Get lost, you gold digger!" and find a way to phish for Benny's email address and send a bill for the wear and tear on the website.  However, in the real world, Benny is given a list of 37 (count em, 37) possible benefits for which he is eligible.  While the website contains the disclaimer that it "cannot guarantee your eligibility for any program," it is also quick to point out that it "is not designed to be a comprehensive listing of all programs for which you may be eligible."  What is going on here?

    Among the possible benefits returned are 4 under the category of "Career Development Assistance" despite Benny's master's degree and his $500,000/year after 12 years of work.  There are three under Child Care/Child Support despite Benny's complete lack of spouse, dependents, and/or (and this one seems fairly important) children.  Another head scratcher is the Loan/Loan Repayment result of 13 in the face of Benny's professed lack of debt.

    So is Benefits.gov a government Ado Annie who "cain't say no", but is really just leading on people like Benny?  In other words, are most of these 37 possibilities useless?  Frankly, I prefer that option to the alternative.  If Benny is really eligible for even a quarter of these possibilities, that makes nine public spigots Benny can hook up to.  With results like that, the 96% in the Washington Post story will be 100% in no time.  Come to think of it, based on Benny's murky citizenship status, maybe more than 100%.  Happy Anniversary to us.

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