How Human-Centered Is our Social Safety Net?

The first step to changing a system is understanding the status quo. And in the landscape of safety net benefits delivery across America’s 50 states, the status quo is complex, time-consuming, and costly, placing unnecessary burdens on both the clients who need these benefits and the caseworkers who administer them. But in our work through the Integrated Benefits Initiative, we discovered that there’s no clear map of the online platforms for benefits across the nation. So we made one.

Over the past year, we have been piloting service delivery improvements to support people to apply for and maintain safety net benefits. Our goal is to demonstrate that a human-centered social safety net is possible in the digital age. In speaking with leaders in dozens of states, we heard two common requests: First, what are other states doing to support their clients? Second, how do complicated rules, regulations, legacy systems, and product decisions impact clients on the ground?

We started with a simple question: What is the user experience of applying for social safety net programs in our country? We then narrowed our focus to five major federal programs:

  • Medicaid, the national health insurance program for low income people
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes known as food stamps or food assistance
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), sometimes known as cash assistance
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a nutrition and health program for pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a program to assist families with energy costs

Next, we spent hundreds of hours analyzing every online benefits application for these five programs across all 50 states. The result is a first-of-its-kind window into what people face as they try to access our social safety net across our country. What our research quickly revealed is that the user experience for applying for our national benefits programs varies greatly by—and sometimes even within—each state.

A tale of two benefits experiences

Picture a young mother in Michigan who recently lost her job. She can use a single portal to apply for Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, and LIHEAP in as little as 20 minutes from her mobile phone (or any device she has access to). The application looks and feels similar to other digital forms she may have recently encountered, like to make a dentist appointment or file her taxes. She does not have to answer difficult questions about her previous addresses or financial history to “prove” her identity as a condition to submitting an application.

A snapshot of Michigan’s online benefits application experience.

Now picture that exact same family facing the same job loss in Connecticut. To apply for critical safety net benefits, the mother would need to spend more than an hour to apply for just SNAP and TANF. The application does not work on her mobile phone, so she may have to visit a library or borrow a friend’s computer to apply online. The design of the application feels less like a modern website and more like a mortgage application or rental car liability agreement. If she successfully makes it through that marathon, she has to find 45 minutes to fill out a separate Medicaid application with similar challenges. In this case, she cannot submit an online application without proving her identity to an impersonal database, answering questions like her parents previous home address or details of an old car loan. If she gets those wrong, the state locks the door to the application and requires her to call or visit in person. To apply for LIHEAP, she would need to look up her local Community Action Agency, make an appointment by phone during business hours, and then show up in person to complete more forms.

A snapshot of Connecticut’s online benefits application experience.

The vastly different user experiences in the Michigan and Connecticut scenarios are to access the same federally-funded benefits programs. What may seem like small individual frustrations compound over the scale of the population served. Almost 1 million people are eligible for Medicaid in Connecticut. Having access to a streamlined benefits application like in Michigan would save Connecticut residents more than 170 years of user time (not even considering the by-phone and in-person LIHEAP experience!).

Explore the project

Are my state’s benefits applications online? Are they mobile-friendly?

How long would it take me to complete a benefits application in my state?

Does my state require odd or intrusive identity-proofing questions just to access an online application?

You can see the answers and explore other questions at the project here.

We believe this status quo is unacceptable. While some states have made important strides in building better applications, most are far from delivering an experience that meets client expectations in 2019. Clients come to benefits applications at times of immense personal stress, such as after they’ve lost a job or a home. We should hold higher expectations of application accessibility and usability than for commercial websites, not less.

We offer this research to others working in this space—state administrators, advocates, and anyone interested in the public benefits landscape—with the hope of spurring momentum toward a more human-centered social safety net. Explore how your state stacks up here.

Please reach out to us at if you want to connect on these efforts. We are also happy to provide a more detailed analysis of a state’s application to interested agency and advocacy leaders.

To learn more about our work on the Integrated Benefits Initiative, click here.

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