COVID-19’s Impact on the Social Safety Net

What we’ve seen in California and how other state agencies can prepare to respond

California’s SNAP program is facing record application volume due to the COVID-19 crisis, and other states should prepare to make adjustments in service delivery to prepare for similar demand. In this post, we summarize some of the key takeaways we’re observing through GetCalFresh’s real-time data and client communications, and offer recommendations for what other states should be thinking about in their response.

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented mass-unemployment event, with millions of people suddenly and unexpectedly out of work as a result of the rapid and pervasive spread of coronavirus. Across the country, response to the coronavirus outbreak has effectively shut down full sectors of the economy. Industries like hospitality, food and beverage, events, entertainment, transportation, and travel have ground to a halt, leaving millions of people suddenly without employment—and with a great deal of uncertainty about if, and when, they’ll be able to return to work.

As a result, millions of people are experiencing a sudden and complete loss of income, and are turning to safety net benefits programs like SNAP (also known as food stamps) in record numbers. Since the pandemic hit California, applications for CalFresh (the state’s SNAP program) have spiked, hitting record-breaking numbers every week. At Code for America, we’ve been closely tracking how the outbreak has impacted CalFresh. Code for America runs GetCalFresh, a digital SNAP application assister that supports clients through each step of the SNAP application and enrollment process in California. Before this crisis, about one-third of all SNAP applicants in California were submitted through GetCalFresh. With the rapid implementation of shelter-in-place orders and a sudden increased reliance on digital resources, in the last two weeks of March GetCalFresh became the entry point for nearly two-thirds of all SNAP applications statewide.

Screenshot of LA Times article with headline "Demand for food stamps surges in California as virus takes economic toll"
A recent LA Times article highlighted the 350% increase in GetCalFresh application volume since the crisis began.

As the impact of the coronavirus spreads across the country, the long-term trajectory of the outbreak is still unclear. However, California’s experience shows that access to digital social services that are adaptable to meet the needs of the current moment is critical. The GetCalFresh patterns in service delivery and client needs will be relevant in other states as the pandemic continues to spread and more shelter-in-place orders are announced. Now is the time for human services agencies across the country to make adjustments to serve a significant increase in demand for online, accessible, and easy-to-use services. Real-time feedback loops with clients allow us to adjust services to meet this need.

What we’re observing in California

Since the pandemic hit California, here’s what we’ve learned:

1. Massive and rapid job loss has driven application volume way up, particularly online.



Because of its online and mobile accessibility, along with an increased overall need for help throughout California, GetCalFresh has seen a dramatic surge in applications since the pandemic hit. In February, before the pandemic impacted the state, GetCalFresh processed 40,000 applications. In March, we processed more than 115,000 applications. More than 57% of these applicants reported that they lost a job in the last 30 days, compared to an average of 16% in January.

“I was just temporarily let go from my job due to the worldwide pandemic. I am currently waiting for unemployment but in the meantime have no money or food to buy groceries.”

“I am a single mother currently suddenly unemployed/laid off due to the coronavirus outbreak. I have zero income and am struggling to provide for my daughter and myself. Usually I am a server. I need immediate help with calfresh benefits due to my daughter and my circumstances. Please help.”

Sudden job loss has created a more urgent need for families to secure food stability, and with health and human services agencies closing their offices to comply with social distancing protocols, people are increasingly seeking the help they need online. While California has seen a 55% increase in overall SNAP applications over the past month, GetCalFresh has experienced an increase of more than 300%. As similar shelter-in-place orders pop up across the country, state human services agencies should anticipate a similar surge in applications submitted online and from mobile phones. In the midst of this public health crisis, it’s more urgent than ever that government services operate effectively in a digital-first environment.

2. The need is urgent, but increased online volume and bureaucratic hurdles have made expedited service more difficult.

While levels of poverty across the country were unacceptably high before this crisis, the immediate volume of need has exposed glaring cracks that keep our social services systems from serving people with dignity and efficiency. Most Americans were not financially prepared for an event like this, and many are now worried about how they will pay rent, bills, and make ends meet with little to no money on hand—and now no money coming in. Roughly 60% of GetCalFresh applicants are likely eligible for expedited service, but due to backlogs in the system, many are not receiving it.

“How fast can I get assistance? I’m debating if I should buy groceries or pay my bills. I don’t know.”

Between office closures and staff needing to care for children or family members, many social services offices are operating at reduced capacity, causing system-wide delays. Increased demand for services by phone has created widespread call center delays and busy signals, and decreased state capacity has left many applicants unable to figure out how to access help at all.

“I’m a [rideshare] driver full time – I’ve never made much money doing it but always have been able to get by. Due to the current circumstances (Covid19) I am completely unable to earn any income. I also have no savings. I am desperate and have 9$ in my bank account. Please please help me – I don’t know what else to do.”

3. Things are changing quickly, and timely communication to clients is more crucial than ever.

The extraordinarily high volume of online applications—particularly those that qualify for expedited service—has led to challenges in communicating effectively with applicants and existing clients. Clients are reporting long delays getting through to county call centers to reschedule an interview, ask their caseworker a question, or report a change about their current case. In March the percentage of applicants who miss their mandatory SNAP interview increased dramatically, and we’re seeing increased confusion on the part of clients who don’t understand the system or are not able to get on the phone with a caseworker to complete their interview.

“I had a missed call from a [Department of Public Social Services] worker but they didn’t leave a message for me to call back. I attempted many times to call the customer service line but due to extreme call volume I wasn’t able to hold. Now a week or so later due to Covid-19 the Customer service dept is closed.”

In March, more than 48% of GetCalfresh applicants reported that they’re applying for SNAP for the first time, and many have basic questions about what to expect, including the timing of the interview, the documents needed, and how long it will take to receive their EBT card if they’re approved. Because has a live chat feature, many clients are messaging us directly with their questions, rather than calling overextended county call centers. GetCalFresh receives hundreds of direct messages each day, and staff have had to pivot to meet the increased volume of recent weeks. New policies are being announced regularly that will help more people get SNAP benefits quickly, but it’s a challenge to communicate these changes to clients quickly and clearly. Social distancing, policy changes, and a high number of first-time applicants means that states will start to see heavy increases in call center traffic, and should think about other ways they can communicate with clients.

What can other states learn from California’s experience?

The real-time client data we see from GetCalFresh reveals the devastating impact the spread of COVID-19 has had on families and individuals throughout California, and offers a snapshot of the ways in which California systems have had to move quickly to meet sudden and increased need. Based on the trajectory of the coronavirus spread, it’s clear that these insights will not be unique to California. As the virus takes hold in cities and states across the country, more and more businesses will close, leaving residents unemployed and turning to the government for help. State human services agencies that manage safety net benefits like Medicaid and SNAP must be ready for an unprecedented increase of applications like the one we’ve seen in California for SNAP.

States should prepare now to respond to meet the increased demand for online, accessible, and easy-to-use services. As state agencies and community based organizations prepare to support more people remotely in this difficult time, here are some strategies that can help:

1. Quickly empower a remote workforce.

One immediate impact of the coronavirus’ spread has been the closing down of physical office spaces and the ensuing rapid transition to remote work. As caseworkers and administrators scatter to their homes—and take on the increased responsibilities of caring for children no longer in school—it’s critical to establish remote working norms, and make sure everyone is technologically and culturally set up to succeed. Adopting remote practices can help human services agencies maintain the capacity of their workforce to meet client demand.
Making sure staff have the tools they need to serve clients remotely when offices are shut down is a top priority. Many IT professionals can set up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) so that staff can connect directly to the private network and access work files and accounts from home on their personal computers. Additionally, communication norms, organizational norms, and operating norms all shift when the workplace goes remote. Spending a bit of time establishing new norms (like working hours, schedules, and communication preferences) will pay off with a smoother transition to remote work. Code for America recently hosted a webinar on successful remote and distributed work in uncertain times, and there are plenty of other resources out there that give recommendations for transitioning to remote work (for example, this report from McKinsey & Company on how to manage and inspire remote teams, or this StateScoop article on how the City of Los Angeles shifted their operations online).

2. Make sure critical information is accessible and easy to understand.

In this time of change and uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to clearly communicate with clients and applicants. GetCalFresh is now receiving an unprecedented number of applicants who are brand new to the benefits system, and who have no understanding of what to expect, what the process looks like, or what’s needed from them. This, combined with the heightened amount of stress and uncertainty many people are experiencing, means that it’s critical that clients and applicants can access answers to some of their most common and urgent questions. Consider these quick actions:

  • If your state’s application isn’t mobile-friendly, make sure to elevate key information on a mobile-friendly website so that everyone can find the answers they need.
  • Triage communications and relieve some pressure on call centers by establishing a rapid response FAQ page on your agency website, ideally sourcing directly from questions clients are asking most often.
  • Re-read paper and electronic notices to make sure the language is clear and easy to understand for everyone.

Code for America’s Blueprint for a Human-Centered Safety Net summarizes some specific recommendations for how to ensure notices, websites, and general communications are all accessible and easy to understand.

Sketch of several people helping others up a slope
Our recently released Blueprint for a Human-Centered Safety Net offers actionable recommendations for how to transform the delivery of public benefits in the digital age.

3. Establish text messaging with clients.

Texting is a fast and responsive way to communicate with clients. Two-way texting is a great way to open pathways for client questions, but there are startup costs associated with preparing staff to receive and respond to a new communication channel. We encourage states who are new to text messaging to try one-way texting, which can relay important information, like new procedures, office closures, or shifting deadlines to clients in an efficient, low-cost way. Agencies should consider:

  • Expand existing vendor contracts to accommodate new populations or scaled-up text-based communications.
  • Consider commercial-off-the-shelf tools as a stopgap solution, rather than trying to build something from the ground-up.
  • Use best practices in clear communications, and test messages for clarity and accuracy with small groups of frontline clients before sending.

For more details and resources about text messaging, see our brief on texting best practices.

4. Take advantage of available policy flexibilities.

New policies like Families First and the CARES Act provide new flexibilities for states in administering SNAP that can help ease access, keep people on the program, and leverage SNAP as a tool for relief. Interview waivers and recertification waivers can get clients on SNAP faster, and help keep them on the program while the need remains high. Emergency allotment waivers are allowing states to give clients the extra help they need and speed up the process of eligibility determinations. And states should implement Pandemic EBT, which allows them to provide K-12 students who qualify for free and reduced lunch with food assistance dollars while campuses are closed. Existing state data can be used to issue P-EBT cards directly to families. However, for cases when data is unavailable, Code for America is working on a simple, easy-to-use digital form that can connect struggling families to assistance without hassle or burden. Though these have been important starts, additional policy flexibility would help states meet the increased need for benefits programs that will continue throughout 2020. Read more about our suggestions in our recent policy memo.

These are challenging and unprecedented times for every state in the country. Things are changing rapidly, and we continue to update our services and our plans as new information becomes available. Please stay tuned for more insights from GetCalFresh, and how other states can implement changes to meet this new and increased need with support from fast, lean technology. This is a moment that proves that, when it centers human needs, government is the best tool we have to meet those needs at scale.

If you want further recommendations on how to prepare your state agencies, you can get directly in touch with us via email:

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