Evaluating a Shifting Safety Net Landscape

We’re showing how the online enrollment experience for safety net benefits has changed across the country in recent years

Here at Code for America, we’re dedicated to doing the transformative work necessary to make our social safety net truly human-centered. The majority of people in the US will use at least one public benefits program in their lifetime, and that experience—of enrolling in and keeping food assistance, healthcare, or child care assistance—shouldn’t make a stressful time more difficult than it already is. But too often, it does. 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how states approached legacy systems and complicated enrollment requirements, and forced many states to bring about a necessary change—their systems for benefits enrollment and maintenance needed to modernize to respond quickly to a swell in demand. The pandemic is still ongoing, but we’re far enough away from that initial point to evaluate what impact those changes have had on the clients of safety net benefits programs. 

Today, we’re excited to launch an updated Benefits Enrollment Field Guide, a comprehensive look at the online enrollment experience for safety net benefits across America. 

As part of our research, we’ve evaluated trends across benefits programs over the past four years, some of which are promising and some of which are concerning because they create more barriers for clients.

  • In general, states are moving more program enrollment online—77% of the programs we examined in each state have online applications, up from 64% in 2019.
  • Just over half of benefits programs now offer online applications that are mobile responsive, an essential consideration for people who depend on their phones to access the internet—that’s one in four Americans who make less than $30,000 a year
  • One concerning trend in online applications is the increase in knowledge-based verification of identity (KBV). KBV asks questions that depend on strong memory or records of personal and credit history. In applications where this is required, people cannot continue the application online if an incorrect response is entered. We found a 75% increase in the use of required or optional KBV in applications since 2019.

Our vision of a human-centered government is one where people are able to access the services they need without facing significant burdens. That means the tools they use to get those services need to be accessible, easy to understand, and meet people where they’re at, taking into account all the challenges and stresses of working people’s everyday lives. 

In 2019, when we worked on the first version of the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide, we posed the question: how human-centered is our safety net? The first step to change, after all, is understanding exactly where we stand at the moment. 

The first step to change, after all, is understanding exactly where we stand at the moment. 

A shifting safety net landscape

In the four years since we posed that question, the safety net benefits landscape has changed dramatically. The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty increased pressure on America’s safety net, creating unprecedented volume that stressed traditional systems’ capacity. States and government agencies had to rely on inflexible technology systems and paper-based processes as they responded to new emergency policies and a swell in demand. 

In response, states began to develop new digital approaches to service delivery, such as online applications, client portals, and self-service features, supported by an Executive Order focused on federal customer experience and the American Rescue Plan. This necessary shift has helped states meet people where they are, increasingly on mobile phones and computers.

A new Benefits Enrollment Field Guide

Our guide has been updated to reflect that shifting landscape, and also to highlight new priorities that we know to be critical to ensuring equity and accessibility for public benefits programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) Medicaid, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). We expanded our assessment to also include:

  • Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, in addition to all 50 states
  • The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP)
  • The availability of support for languages other than English—a major opportunity for helping people get benefits 
  • Plain language analysis
  • Evaluations of digital accessibility tools for people who use assistive technology to read or fill out online forms

Visit the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide to explore all trends across America.

Creating change at scale

One of the primary goals of all our work at Code for America is to scale innovation from one place to many so that more people benefit from it. When we’ve spoken with safety net agency leaders and caseworkers across the country, we often hear the question: What are other states doing? The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide is an answer to that, and we hope states are able to get a better picture of on-the-ground best practices currently in use that are making clients’ and caseworkers’ lives easier. For example:

  • Mississippi and Massachusetts offer inspiration on easy front doors to begin applications
  • Michigan and Kentucky use clear, easy design patterns to make inputting information a breeze.
  • Washington, D.C. offers a comprehensive self service portal so clients can upload documents, complete renewals, read notices, report changes, and check payments. 
  • Minnesota and New Mexico offer integrated live chat to support clients in a new pathway.
  • Oregon integrated major safety net programs in bringing together Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, and child care into a single application that takes as little as 15 minutes.
screenshots of service portals
The portals for applying for safety net benefits in Oregon and Washington, D.C.

We hope that through this work, government at all levels can be inspired by what is possible when we harness digital tools and practices in service of providing human-centered experiences. With this approach, everyone benefits—caseworkers, agency staff, and most importantly, the people government is meant to serve. 

Want to see how your state stacks up? Check out the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide today.

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