Wading Through the Sludge

Drawing of man carrying papers through sludge
Abner Dean
Drawing from Abner Dean’s What Am I Doing Here? (1947), reissued by New York Review Comics

The Office of Management and Budget is required by law to produce a widely neglected annual report, the Information Collection Budget of the United States Government (ICB), which quantifies the annual paperwork burden that the government imposes on its citizens. The most recent ICB finds that in 2015, Americans spent 9.78 billion hours on federal paperwork.1

The Treasury Department, including the Internal Revenue Service, accounted for the vast majority of the total: 7.36 billion hours. The Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for 696 million hours imposed on (among others) doctors, hospitals, and the beneficiaries of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Transportation accounted for no less than 214 million hours, including elaborate requirements imposed on truck drivers, automobile companies, railroads, and airlines. Comparatively speaking, the 91 million annual hours that came from the Department of Education might not seem like much, but for administrators, teachers, and students, they were pretty burdensome.

The ICB does not make for riveting reading, but it is worth pausing over those 9.78 billion hours. Suppose we insisted that for the entirety of 2019 all 2.7 million citizens of Chicago must work forty hours a week at a single task: filling out federal forms. By the end of 2019, they would not have come within four billion hours of the 2015 total. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) was enacted in 1980 in an effort to reduce this burden, but it doesn’t appear to be living up to its name. (Disclosure, or perhaps confession: from 2009 to 2012, I served as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs [OIRA], and in that capacity I oversaw administration of the PRA.)

If we use the average value for an hour of work as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—$27—then those 9.78 billion hours are the equivalent of $264.06 billion. That is more than double the budget of the Department of State and the Department of Transportation, and more than triple the budget of the Department of Education. And the monetary figures greatly understate the problem. Paperwork burdens can make it difficult or impossible for people to enjoy fundamental rights, such as the right to vote or to obtain life-changing benefits—or to avoid crushing hardships.

For paperwork burdens, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Richard Thaler has coined a good term: “sludge.” You might want to sign your child up for free school meals, but wading through the sludge might defeat you. To get financial aid for college, students have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s long and complicated; many students give up and fail to apply to college at all. The right…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.