When it comes to getting help with US unemployment benefits and supplemental nutritional programs, geography really does matter, according to University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Oeindrila Dube and Chicago Booth’s Sendhil Mullainathan and Devin G. Pope. Their research finds that it’s easier to get a representative on the phone to answer questions in certain states. And it’s easier across the United States to get a human on the phone to help with income-tax questions than for questions about unemployment insurance or government food benefits.

The researchers took a mystery-shopping approach to their work, hiring 10 assistants to make more than 2,000 phone calls to state government offices in an effort to determine the probability of reaching a live person with each call. The calls were placed to four types of government offices across all 50 states between September 2020 and March 2021. Each caller spent as long as 45 minutes trying to reach a human to help with unemployment insurance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Medicaid, or income taxes.

The study finds “significant variations across state and government programs.”

The assistants fared the best in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where more than 80 percent of callers reached a person to help them. They fared the worst in Georgia and New Jersey, where fewer than 20 percent of their calls were connected with representatives.

Other states where representatives were easier to reach include Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Vermont. The states with the lowest pickup rates included Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Mexico.

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“In contrast to businesses, which often face strong competitive pressures to provide quality customer support, states have very little oversight and incentive to make sure that their call systems are efficient,” the researchers write. “Consequently, already vulnerable populations will face additional hurdles because of the faulty nature of the system.”

Across the country, callers with tax questions were almost twice as likely to reach a representative than callers with questions about unemployment, the data indicate. Callers to tax offices also were more likely to reach a representative than those calling Medicaid or SNAP offices. In Hawaii, Missouri, and New Jersey, no calls about SNAP benefits were answered by representatives, while at least some calls to income-tax offices were.

Research assistants with questions about unemployment never managed to reach representatives in Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, or Virginia. They had the best chances of getting through in Idaho, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

In states where representatives were harder to reach, there was no evidence that governments were compensating with better websites or enhanced messaging services, the researchers note, adding, “Our hope is that this research can provide more accountability for state governments to improve the customer support that they provide to their residents.”

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