Among myriad other challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a child care crisis. With schools closed, enrichment activities for children canceled, and health concerns that limited traditional familial child care options, parents and guardians were left with few options. Single moms, in particular, were driven from the workforce and are being left behind as the economy starts to recover. When job opportunities arrive, people without reliable child care are left with one enormous question: who will take care of their child while they go to work, and how will they afford that expense?
The good news is that there are government support programs that help with child care, and they’ve received an infusion of financial support from the American Rescue Plan. The less good news? Like many social safety net programs, applying for child care assistance can be confusing and time consuming. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Recently, Hennepin County in Minnesota experimented with moving the child care assistance process online in an effort to understand whether that would simplify the process and expand access to more families. The experiment shows that when parents and guardians are given more application options, more people apply, are just as likely to get approved, and get benefits sooner.
Getting child care assistance can be a burden unto itself
In Minnesota, the Basic Sliding Fee (BSF) Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) subsidizes the cost of child care for families with low income. The program is overenrolled even at the best of times, and the application begins when families pulled off the waitlist are mailed a packet of forms. The application for the program can be arduous—it’s 26 pages long and asks detailed information about family members, school and work schedules, earnings, assets, and living situations, in addition to requiring families to submit documentation verifying this information, like birth certificates, pay stubs, and leases. The application can cause stress for families who aren’t sure if they’ve answered questions correctly or lack the necessary documentation.
The system also poses a challenge for caseworkers. In an ideal scenario, an application contains enough information that an eligibility determination can be made without further contact. But in reality, most cases require followup to clarify responses, verify information, and get additional documentation. As a result, it can take families months to get the help they need. Hennepin County staff started to wonder: could experimental tweaks to the application process make it a better experience for both families and caseworkers?
Hennepin County staff started to wonder: could experimental tweaks to the application process make it a better experience for both families and caseworkers?
Bringing the safety net online
Minnesota counties had experience partnering with Code for America before on MNbenefits, an integrated benefits application that strikes a balance between collecting the essential information needed to start processing an application while keeping the experience of applying short and welcoming so as not to turn away clients.
In this case, Hennepin County’s policy staff, data team, and frontline staff collaborated with Code for America’s data science team to develop a six-month long experiment launched in April 2021: as people came off the CCAP waiting list, some would receive the normal paper application packet, while others would receive the paper application and a flyer advertising the option to apply online instead.
While families who chose the online application option were still required to eventually submit all the same information as the usual paper mail-in application packet, the online app was much shorter and was intended to give families a sense of their eligibility earlier in the process. We suspected that families who found out they might be eligible would be encouraged to finish the rest of the process with the help of a caseworker, and would do so with greater confidence.
In total, 460 people received the normal mail-only application, and 300 people were randomly chosen to receive the online-option flyer. Together, our teams tracked application rate and speed, as well as how long it took the cases to issue payments (which also depends on finding a childcare provider). Because CCAP is the only program on MNBenefits that doesn’t require an interview, there was a special interest in seeing if it took residents longer to access the program when they applied online.
Providing an online option expands who applies and gets benefits
At the end of three months, 42.9% of the people who were offered the online option submitted an application, compared to only 34.5% of those invited to apply by mail. At the end of six months, 50% of the online-option group had applied, compared to 43.2% of the mail-only group. For those who were offered the online option, roughly half applied online and half applied via mail.
Among those who applied, those in the online-option group were more likely to receive payments, but the difference was only significant in early months, suggesting that the online option flyers helped speed up the application process compared to the mail-only flyers. At the end of the six month study period, 23.8% of those who were offered the online option had received at least one payment, versus 18.7% of those who could only apply by mail (no statistical difference).
Taken together, these data suggest that while some people offered the online-option would have applied by mail anyway, others would not apply at all if they weren’t given an online option. Importantly, there is good evidence that the online application helped more people apply sooner and with a comparable chance of success to the traditional mail-in option, meaning they got the benefits they deserve on a faster timeline. In real terms, this means more parents and caregivers could go to work and live their lives, safe in the knowledge that their kids were cared for.
Where do we go with this knowledge?
At a baseline, we’ve learned that a thick paper application to start the process for getting child care assistance leaves some people behind, and that an online alternative can be an easier access point for families who otherwise wouldn’t apply. We also recognize that while requesting comprehensive information from clients at the beginning of the application process can be useful for caseworkers, making the initial online application shorter ensures that clients have a better sense of their eligibility and spares them the work of doing the rest of the application if they see they see they aren’t eligible. In turn, this can make it easier for caseworkers, since it ensures that they’ll be reviewing cases that are more likely to be eligible and can get families approved on a faster timeline. We’re currently sharing our learnings with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and are in conversation about how these findings could increase access to child care assistance across the state.
A broader lesson we’ve taken from this experiment is the value of experimentation itself—especially miniature experiments that make seemingly small adjustments to our everyday business practices.
But a broader lesson we’ve taken from this experiment is the value of experimentation itself—especially miniature experiments that make seemingly small adjustments to our everyday business practices. We launched this effort during a period of both unprecedented demand and support for the program, and while our staff were remote. And despite that, it worked! Hennepin County will continue this spirit of experimentation in the future, and we’d encourage other county and municipal governments to consider what they can experiment with, even on small budgets or during busy times. It’s that spirit of “what if we…?” that drives some of the best process improvements—and no matter how small the question is, the result could have a big impact on the lives of real people.