If you’re frustrated that your share of the $2.2 trillion in government virus assistance hasn’t arrived, there may be a good reason for the delay. It has nothing to do with suspected incompetence or manipulation by the so-called Deep State.

“Plenty has been written about governments systemically underinvesting in masks, ventilators and other needed health infrastructure,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote. “But the novel coronavirus pandemic has revealed another area of critical underinvestment: government IT. Archaic, minimally functional computer systems are holding back the rescue effort.”

Rampell gives a few examples that would be comical in ordinary times. New Jersey has issued a call for help from anyone fluent in the 1960s COBOL programming language, which still runs parts of unemployment programs in 34 states. State unemployment websites around the country are crashing because their older systems are unable to handle the crush of claims brought on by the virus.

At the federal level, the Internal Revenue Service’s 52-year-old software system is among the oldest such programs the federal government uses. And the Small Business Administration’s online loan portal has crashed several times.

Two elements combine to leave government agencies well behind the times when it comes to system upgrades. They are vulnerable to conservative “starve the beast” efforts to shrink government spending, and they compete for money with more compelling services such as education and medical research.

A software upgrade can be expensive and easy to postpone. Everybody muddles through until an emergency occurs — such as the one the country is dealing with today. But when the world returns to normal, governments at all levels must help their employees serve the public by giving them the technology tools they need.

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