The social safety net can and should work well for everyone—that’s something we can all agree on. But how do we actually know if the social safety net is working well? For government programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF, it can be difficult to tell if benefits are being delivered effectively, accurately, and equitably to those who need it most.
One thing we do know is that the safety net of benefit programs in the US is not reaching all of the people it should—or reaching people as quickly and efficiently as it could. One of the main impediments to improving our safety net is that we lack adequate data to understand the full picture—about the people who use benefits, the processes by which benefits are delivered, and the experiences people have interacting with safety net systems. Without accurate and comprehensive data, it is impossible to identify, evaluate, and address disparities in access and outcomes.
Put simply: You can’t fix a problem you can’t see.
We can and should establish new, people-centered ways to measure success. That’s why Code for America, in partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, created the National Safety Net Scorecard to evaluate the current landscape of benefit delivery and measure progress towards a human-centered safety net.
It’s time to start placing the needs and experiences of people who rely on these benefits at the center of how we assess performance and delivery. It’s past time to use data as a decision-making tool with the goal of promoting equity for all people.
What should we measure?
As it stands, many of the metrics collected by state and federal agencies describe the big picture of safety net programs. We know the number of people who apply for benefits and get approved or denied, the number of total participating households, and the dollar amount of benefits issued. These numbers are hugely important—but they don’t tell the full story about how well a program is truly serving people.
Moving towards a more people-centered social safety net requires re-envisioning the types of questions we ask of our data. Can all eligible people access the program benefits, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability? How difficult is the process of applying and receiving benefits? Did the program reach all people who are eligible?
With guidelines for building a more meaningful set of metrics that can be used as “vital signs” to effectively assess the true state of program delivery, the new National Safety Net Scorecard measures would allow state and federal leaders to clearly see where programs can improve and measure progress over time. The Scorecard focuses on three key indicators of success: equitable access, effective delivery, and compassionate integrity. These indicators are meant to assess how easily people can obtain services, how smoothly programs operate to provide a dignified, easy application experience for all eligible people, and how well benefits are delivered according to policy.
States now have the potential to access more data than ever before—but data on its own is meaningless. In order to drive toward a people-centered safety net, data must be used to inform decisions on an ongoing basis. The good news? States don’t have to start from scratch. This work is already happening in some places, and the National Scorecard highlights state and local governments that are leading the way.
The best outcome is a human-centered safety net
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have highlighted the urgent need for a safety net that serves people well, and with dignity. But we don’t have to wait for another crisis to start fixing what’s broken. A more resilient and effective safety net could provide an equitable path forward for everyone. Our trust in the social safety net is a measure of our confidence in society. We can reframe what quality safety net delivery looks like by changing what we measure to place the needs and experiences of people at the center of our decision-making.
Want to explore the National Scorecard? Check it out here.