Reimagining the Social Safety Net Amid COVID-19

Hear from speakers at our 2021 Summit about what lessons we can take from the safety net crises of the pandemic
a screenshot of a youtube video with all panel participants

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented increase in people and families who needed to access the country’s social safety net for support during a time of crisis. But as millions lost their jobs or were furloughed, schools shuttered their doors, and the public health system was challenged, the holes in our social safety net were brought into stark relief. Many weren’t able to access the benefits they deserve and state government workers were strained by the rapid rise in need.

In that crisis was also an opportunity. Government at all levels had to experiment in the new reality created by the pandemic—benefit application processes that used to be in person had to pivot, safety net programs had to be delivered to many more people, and structures that had been in place for decades had to be revised. Tracey Patterson, Senior Director of Social Safety Net at Code for America, noted that seeing that willingness to innovate was inspiring. “I think if we have short-term thinking or we think rigidly around programs, it really prevents us from seeing what it could be,” she said. “It’s not about getting it right the first time always exactly, but figuring out how we can learn and apply what we’ve learned ahead. I think we’re seeing the results of that now, and so, as challenging as this year has been, I think we’ve opened up a whole new way of thinking and learning of how we can work together to make the system better going forward.”

COVID-19 made clear that our safety net is not something we can take for granted ... We need to reimagine and redesign our safety net to make it more resilient, more durable, more digital, and more equitable.
Ty Jones Cox

Panelists discussed how the pandemic can create lasting changes in the social safety net—if we take the time to listen to affected communities and innovate to meet their needs.

The panel was moderated by Ty Jones Cox, Owner and Principal Consultant of Ty Cox Consulting, and included Tracey Patterson, Senior Director of Social Safety Net at Code for America; Stacy Dean, Deputy Under Secretary of the USDA for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; Terri P. Ricks, Deputy Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services; and Tikki Brown, Economic Opportunity Nutrition Assistance Director for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.


Ty Jones Cox: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our reimagining the safety net amid COVID-19 panel. When COVID-19 hit last year, it sent shockwaves throughout our entire nation causing untold social, economic, and personal devastation. More than 80 million people in America have filed unemployment claims since March 2020, and almost 43 million people rely on SNAP to feed themselves and their families. Millions have needed Pandemic-EBT to make sure that children have food to eat.

The reality is that before COVID, millions of our neighbors and family have relied on our social safety net, and now our social safety net is more important than ever. COVID-19 also made clear that our safety net is not something we can take for granted. Our social safety net systems were strained too, and in some cases, past the breaking point, yet these systems are made up of people.

The work to make access to the social safety net equitable is really a story about people and the people who make the safety network. We need to reimagine and redesign our safety net to make it more resilient, more durable, more digital, and more equitable. That’s just what our panel is going to discuss today. I’m happy to be here with these amazing women who all are part of the safety net.

The first question I have, that we’re going to pose is, what parts of The safety net performed well during this crisis and which did not? I’m going to pitch that to you, Stacy?

Stacy Dean: Sure. Thanks, Ty. So good to see you. It’s a big question and there’s a big problem. Just at a high level because, of course, our country’s never seen a disaster of this scale, and so I think a lot of what we’re seeing today has fallen short, but I’d say lessons learned are the programs that have an entitlement structure, meaning they can flex and expand to need. That was absolutely critical in this moment.

I also think either those programs that had disaster flexibility or where Congress quickly provided it, that was a pretty extraordinary thing to see the programs pivot. That only worked because the people who run the programs are extremely nimble, committed folks who pivoted in a really unbelievable and interesting and creative way. That, I think, was a space where things worked well.

I would say where it didn’t work well, clearly, folks just didn’t have enough cash. The idea that they were facing eviction, facing such extraordinary hardship. Bottom line is, early on, the scale of the response was just too small. I think that’s why, frankly, the American Rescue Plan that just went through is much more scaled to the problem and will hopefully equip states, and communities, and most fundamentally, individuals with the help they need to meet their hardship and for economic growth.

Ty: Agreed, Stacy, agreed. Tikki what do you think?

Tikki Brown: Right. I will echo everything that Stacy has said. I think the number one star in my book, I have to say that because I’m a state employee, but all of our government employees are state employees who have worked above and beyond anything, unlike anything we’ve ever seen, just really to get new programs situated, flex existing programs, put in incredible amount of hours, weekends.

I think because we were serving such basic needs, and because really, that’s why a lot of us right came into this work, it became such a burden and something that folks really wanted to help address. They understood if they did not act what the consequences were for people. I think that’s been critically important and I think has worked so well. I think the other piece that’s interesting, as we all went home way back in March of whatever year that was, we didn’t really quite know how partnerships would happen, how they would form, and that has been an incredible success as well.

Working across state agencies, across different organizations, we were able to form new partnerships and develop really flexible, unique programs that really could help meet the need. Things that didn’t work well is, I think when you’re working so quickly, it’s easy to forget about sometimes these smaller organizations or organizations that aren’t always at the table. It’s really easy to go with what you know instead of really thinking thoughtfully and putting really some intentionality into thinking outside the box, and we could always do better in that sense.

Ty: Building off of that and really stepping back now that we’ve been in this pandemic for over a year, what lessons have we learned about how to design our social safety net programs as a result of this crisis. I’m going to start with Terri for that.

Terri P. Ricks: Thank you, Ty. It’s really great to be on the panel with everyone. I’m going to just start off where Tikki started, too, with the incredible men and women of all of our agencies. Two years ago, we would say that the Department of Children and Family Services in Louisiana served one in five of Louisianians. Today, we would say we serve one in three Louisianians, where we are. We learned that good and clear communications with our clients was the best way to handle diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We moved some research that we had done with Code for America actually a couple of years ago into full action and began texting our clients directly. I think, a few years ago, I might have said we were in a pilot program and we reached out to 40,000 people. We now have 600,000 that we reach out to several times a month to make sure they know it’s cut down on the amount of communications they’re having to make directly to us, asking us, “What’s happening? What will happen? I’m concerned, I heard this in the news,” et cetera.

Driving information directly to those who need it has been one of the most important things. In addition to that, our advocates and partners have been incredible help to get their ear on the ground. We also realize that we have to talk directly to our clients to understand what they see as their need.

We actually hired clients in April of last year when we realized there were going to be so many more people that had never applied for benefits. We hired some to give us feedback. Current clients as well as potential clients in the SNAP program gave us feedback that we would not have known otherwise, from the font in our flyers to, “I don’t know what you mean when you say this.” That has been really, really great.

Then the last thing is that our offices were closed, but our people never stopped working. The flexibilities to get everybody on a phone and with their laptops, amazing. Lots of lessons there. Working with the feds and understanding their flexibilities has been amazing as well. Just things that we can’t drop going forward.

Ty: Right. Though your governments can’t move fast, you showed them that you can when needed.

Terri: That’s right.

Ty: Tracey, I want to pitch that same question to you.

Tracey Patterson: Yes, thank you. I think here at Code for America, we’ve had the honor of really supporting about a dozen states in formal or informal ways around the last year. I think Terri’s example was such a perfect one. I think one thing when we’re thinking about how to design safety net programs going forward is thinking of those small projects as building blocks for what could be next. Not the short-term thinking of, “This is this thing, let’s do it and move on,” but “Okay, this was this thing, how can we learn from pieces of it? How can we learn from aspects of it and apply it forward?”

I think if we have short-term thinking or we think rigidly around programs, like, “This is what this program is,” it really prevents us from seeing what it could be and what it could mean to people and how we could use aspects from what we’ve learned in one place to apply to others. I come back to the word at the beginning about resilience, because we all went home in March of whatever year [laughs] and I think we all thought we were going to be home for about three weeks. Then three weeks turned into maybe three months, and then now it’s been over a year.

I think resilience is really about emerging from stress and emerging with a system that has the ability to bounce back from stress. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. It’s not about getting it right the first time always exactly, but figuring out how we can learn and apply what we’ve learned ahead. I think we’re seeing the results of that now, and so, as challenging as this year has been, I think we’ve opened up a whole new way of thinking and learning of how we can work together to make the system better going forward.

Ty: Perfect. Building off of the resilience and just making the system better, how do we make sure that these new systems that are developed bring increased fairness and equity to the delivery of government services? I’m going to start with Tikki on that one.

Tikki: I think it’s about access and about communication and being thoughtful about who are we reaching, and have we made every effort to listen and modify and adjust? That idea of continuous improvement I think is so important. We worked early on with homeless encampments to provide some meal programs, which we’re really proud of. I think we could have easily stopped and said, “We did that,” pat ourselves on the back and then move on, but when we reached back out to say, “How did that work?” we found the meals weren’t culturally specific, and so actually, we didn’t do a great job on that.

Our next contracts are with organizations that provide culturally-specific food to American Indians and BIPOC populations. That was a good lesson. We need to do better and we need to be thoughtful. It touches on what Tracey was saying earlier about just this idea of slowing down and being thoughtful of who are we reaching, and is it in fact all of the populations that we need to be reaching, and do they have a voice at the table? I think that’s really important.

Ty: Very important. Super important. Stacy, what are your thoughts there?

Stacy: Very similar to Tikki. I think asking ourselves questions about the choices we’re making; who’s helped, who might be excluded or face more burden. A good example is phone and online access. What an extraordinary thing that we were able to pivot to that, and yet it doesn’t work for a lot of very low-income vulnerable people who just will do better with an in-person face-to-face experience because they may not have a phone or internet access. Let’s take the wins, but not forget some of those other folks who weren’t helped.

I guess I would say another thing is, it’s also really important to step back and appreciate the context for issues or circumstances. SNAP has a rule that I am not a fan of, as you know, Ty, which is that adults without children, not raising minor children are expected in many cases to work a minimum of 20 hours a week in order to maintain their benefits. The African American male unemployment rate is much higher, in many cases twice that of their white counterparts.

How does that rule play out for different communities? What are we expecting of folks when we establish rules like that? I think that’s part of bringing– We just need to start having those conversations and making sure we’re appreciating the implications of both access and restrictions.

Ty: Right. Having open, honest, and intentional conversations on access too is so important, right? Our government has traditionally made it difficult at times to sign up for benefits. During the pandemic, has this issue improved? I want to pivot that to Tracey first to walk us through that.

Tracey: It’s a great question, and I think actually Stacy touched on it. We’ve had policies in place and processes in place that actually intentionally made it hard for people, by putting rules in place, by putting barriers in place, I think a lot with the presumption that people might be trying to get too much or get something out of the government that they don’t deserve. I think we’re really re-examining all of that as a society, and that’s fantastic. That’s going to take some time.

I think from a systems and technology perspective, what we saw on the safety net is the traditional way of going into an office, sitting in a lobby for a while, filling out a long form. A lot of times when things went online, and I’m going to say online is digital, we just moved that form online. We just took that old process of what it meant to sit in the lobby and fill out a long form and maybe talk to someone and then we put that PDF online or we put that application online. We didn’t think about transforming it.

I think my best analogy would be like the banking system, for those of you who aren’t old enough like me to have gone in and filled out little deposit slips at the window and handwritten that and handed that over to someone. Can you imagine if your online bank had that slip online and that’s where you had to fill it out in order to get your money? That’s not how it works.

Those of us now know online banking really approached in a whole new way, and that’s exactly what we need to do for the safety net now. We have the tools. We see it all over in commercial spaces, in almost every aspect of our life, and we really need to look at that when it comes to basic needs; food, health care. These things are fundamental, and so we actually need to redesign the way our services work with the tools we have available now and really lifting up the dignity of people who are doing their best to take care of their families and take care of themselves right now and make it easier for them to get what they need.

Terri: Yes. I’d love to jump in on that a little bit too. I have to tell you that in Louisiana, what we saw is that there were some flexibilities available to us that we had not availed ourselves of. Even within the state, just something simple like using a DocuSign or other digital signatures within our organization [unintelligible 00:15:46] things, we had had that capability for some time, but had not turned it on for various reasons.

One other thing is that, in Louisiana, because of the ice storms and the three hurricanes that hit our shores, we were able to do a virtual disaster SNAP program that has really allowed us to move even more ahead on our technology use. What we did there, a couple of different things I think may be useful, is we relied on our web-based call center to create the staff to have the ability to be a web-based call center.

We were able to get the flexibility from FNS that waived the in-person interview, but because the technology allows for review of every call and because Louisiana had been the first state to use what we call an LA Wallet, we were able to use this technology to identify their residence and their identity to confirm using this technology that perhaps were it not for this situation, we might not have reached out to our sister agency that had that technology. I hate to think that, but it could be true.

With this, we were able to do seven disaster SNAP programs. We’ve had to do seven in an eight-month period with the various disasters. The cost savings to both the persons who are trying to reach us as well as to the administration is just astounding. We will be keeping that. I’m so excited to be able to say that. Because of what we learned, we will be able to take the technology that we use in DSNAP, both the telephonic work, telephonic signature, the use of employees and their own call center to be able to do and actually move to what we should have been doing, which is allow the clients to call us for their interview on our regular SNAP benefit.

We are about to move from what normally takes about 21 days, Tracey, to being able to get people immediately eligible for them to get their benefits immediately. We’re very excited about what we’ve learned and we’re going to keep a lot of it going forward. Thanks for that question because I think that we have to not waste a good emergency. Don’t ever waste a good emergency. We’re trying our best to keep that mantra.

Ty: I like that. We could chat forever, but we don’t have that much time. I think what I’m going to do at the end here is, there’s one final question, if there was one thing you could do to make our social safety network better, what would it be? I also want you all in your comments to also think about what service developed during the pandemic that should stay. I’m pretty sure Terri wants the LA Wallet to stay, but if there’s one thing that you want to stay, also mention that. I’ll try to go in a different order. This time I’ll start with Tikki.

Tikki: I have so much to say, but I will try to keep it short. One thing that we did during the pandemic I want to elevate is our SNAP outreach team partnered with General Mills and we developed, which is a website that’s really focused on a digital media campaign connecting individuals with our SNAP outreach grantees so that they could get immediate application assistance help. That really reframed our outreach approach to really focusing on people that were newly eligible due to the pandemic and due to the economic downturn.

I just think it’s a really good example of a new partnership and one that we want to continue to keep, being flexible and designing new strategies. We know the populations that we serve, they’re going to be suffering and needing assistance a long time after this pandemic does eventually end. We know that during the last economic downturn, I think it took three to five years for SNAP recipients to recover. That’s, I think, really important just to keep pivoting.

I will say final comments is, I think that we know SNAP doesn’t provide all of the benefits for a family. We know during this pandemic, so many other programs were able to be utilized and developed to really help provide food resources for families and for individuals. I think we can’t let that go. I think we need to be really thoughtful as a nation and as a country to be– We need to move to a place where people aren’t desperate for food. It’s the right thing to do. We shouldn’t accept that people are in fact desperate for food, we can do better.

Ty: Exactly. Tracey.

Tracey: I’ll keep it quick. I would just say listening and being in dialogue, whether that is, as Terri said, hiring clients to inform whether that’s using the tools of technology to be doing two-way texting and messaging back and forth with people, and for technologists coming in, I would say first listen. Don’t come in with the solution, but technology can actually help us get us there. I think listening and remaining in dialogue and using the tools we have available.

Ty: Exactly. Stacy.

Stacy: I think very much the same. For me, part of what we need to be doing is taking some of the lessons learned in programs like SNAP that Tikki and Terri have been using, more phones, more technology, more giving folks options for ways to relate to the programs and trying to share those lessons learned over with different programs, for example, WIC, which has had a traditionally very intensely in-person experiencing, where we can have it a bit more in that environment.

On the program side or something we should bring forward, I think that the summer, states will have the ability to launch a summer food benefit for kids who are out of school and young children. I’m so excited about that. It’s essentially a nationwide summer EBT program, which is something that’s been piloted for some time in the past. We’ll be able to do that this summer and next summer if states opt in. I think summer hunger has been such a huge issue. I hope we can bring it forward for the future.

Ty: Definitely something to focus on. Terri.

Terri: Thank you. I have to say that the collaboration that we’ve been having as a cabinet, we’ve been seeing that through the last couple of years, being able to capitalize on that during the pandemic really helped us move forward and help Louisianan’s a lot better. What I would say is that, as we move forward, the focus on workforce development and training, SNAP employment and training, we’ve moved even to child support enforcement education and training, we believe that we’ve got to get to the– The base of this is making sure that we have a trained workforce ready as well as providing them and wrapping around them.

We’re wanting to make sure that we’re paying attention to the cliff, we’re wanting to make sure that we don’t lose sight of data, and all of those things are super important as we go forward. Absolutely we want to keep using the telephonic resources that we did and the other electronic resources, but I tell you, there’s nothing better than the partnership. As we go forward, we are looking to get everybody on the same platform using our 211 providers and our platform as well to be able to move forward where we can all talk together and actually help these families together, wrap around them and not let them go.

Multi-generational approaches and making sure that nobody goes without their needs being met. Thank you for allowing me to talk about this and I love being with you guys. Thanks for this. This has been a great time.

Ty: Yes, definitely. This is the best panel. We have a long way to go before the impacts of the pandemic will be behind us. Inequality was the foundation before the pandemic, and we have to aim higher than just recovery. If history is a guide, this will take years if not decades. It’s absolutely critical that the social safety net be redesigned and re-imagined to make sure it works for the people who need it today and provides a better future for all of us tomorrow. I want to thank our panelists for sharing their perspectives. Tikki, Terri, Stacy, Tracey, this has been great. The work you do is so important and so appreciated. Thank you.

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