Government Policies Must Include Citizen’s Right to Paper Options

Apr 15, 2014

  By Mark Pitts

  Executive Director, Printing and Writing 

  As the federal government increasingly leverages the strengths of the
  internet and social media, it is important not to disenfranchise the
  many Americans who prefer paper-based communications or have
  limited or no access to information and essential services offered
  only in digital forms.  We agree with the government’s goal of using
  emerging technologies to serve the public as effectively as possible, but that should not be at the expense of those who prefer or need to receive paper-based communications and documentation.  Americans deserve the opportunity to choose paper for their communication needs.

Recent federal government action to phase out or eliminate paper-based options imposes hardships for millions of vulnerable Americans and has negative consequences for paper industry jobs.

Recent government actions to remove paper options include:

  • Elimination of Social Security checks, replaced by direct deposit and high-fee debit cards;
  • Elimination of mailed Social Security earnings statements;
  • Internal Revenue Service no longer mails tax forms to U.S. taxpayers;
  • U.S. Treasury Department ended the sale of paper savings bonds; and
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking to eliminate printed pharmaceutical labeling in favor of on-line only access to prescription drug information.

The decision to offer information in digital form only at best takes away Americans’ choice and at worst excludes some of our citizens from accessing vital information provided or regulated by their government. 

Internet use remains highly correlated with age, education, and household income. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce study, up to 30 percent of Americans are not online and 45 percent of seniors don’t own a computer. Just this month, a Pew research study showed 53 percent of seniors don’t have broadband access at home and 23 percent do not have cell phones. Seniors also face hurdles adopting new technology, with 77 percent responding they require help using it. In addition, 41 percent of American adults who have not graduated high school are offline, as are 24 percent of American adults earning less than $30,000 per year and 20 percent of rural residents.  These are people that are not able to access digital information, but still deserve the services provided by their government. 

Government policies that eliminate paper options set a precedent for the private sector, where the economic threat is far greater. AF&PA is addressing this government “rush to digitize” by ensuring legislators understand that many government agencies are forcing a single, digital-only option without any congressional oversight or public comment.  These actions are short-sighted and may ultimately cost the government more than it saves.

With federal budgets under fire, cost reduction is often cited as the rationale for switching away from printed materials. But the hidden costs of the current lack of online document security and identity protection could easily swamp any supposed gains from the government’s paperless initiatives.  Fraud and identity theft costs associated with on-line government transactions have skyrocketed. For example, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2012 that the IRS failed to identify 1.5 million fraudulent direct deposit returns, sending out $5.2 billion in refunds to thieves. The Inspector General said this identity theft could cost taxpayers $21 billion over the next five years. In addition, by providing digital-only access to essential documents, the government is simply shifting the cost of printing those documents to citizens, and high-fee debit cards in lieu of printed checks pile on added costs for many who can least afford it.

AF&PA is pushing back on these government policies so citizens can choose the way they send and receive information – based on the best solution to their own needs. These actions are backed by public demand. In a recent study of consumer preferences by Info Trends, 73 percent of Americans do not think they should be required to interact with the government online.

To be clear, this is not about opposing the use of technology, but about choice.  The government’s rush to digitize likely will continue and AF&PA will be there to remind legislators and regulators of the risks digital-only policies pose for citizens and our members.