Code for America recently received a landmark investment through The Audacious Project to transform America’s social safety net. Over the next seven years, our Safety Net Innovation Lab will work with state governments to reimagine and rebuild delivery of accessible and equitable benefits. Our goal is to partner with 15 states to reach 13 million people and unlock $30 billion in benefits in the areas of food assistance, health care, and other basic needs
Our CEO Amanda Renteria laid out our vision for safety net transformation in a TED Talk at the 2022 TED Conference in Vancouver. She shared the personal journey that led her to this work, the groundwork that Code for America has laid over the past decade by bringing human-centered technology to the social safety net, and why this moment calls for a redesign of our systems to ensure they see people—all people.
To hear the full TED Talk, watch the video or read the transcript below.
Courtesy of TED Talks
My dad’s first lesson to me was, “Look people in the eye, mi hija, make sure people see you and you see them.” He has been a proud janitor, farm worker, shoe shiner, home builder and small business owner. He has seen the world from so many different lenses and has lots of stories to tell. But there’s one I’ve never been able to get out of my head. A story when my dad was a young kid.
He and my tio Milo knew exactly when the trucks would come in. Under the freeway, just as the sun set, they jumped the fence to get into the dump. And as they waited for the trucks, they’d make bets on who would find the best food. An uneaten apple they could clean, a perfect banana, sometimes a candy bar or a wrapped sandwich. And then they’d grab whatever they could find, and save the very best to bring home to their even younger brothers and sisters.
I hate that story. But I share it because we can’t solve what we can’t see.
In 1936, this image of the migrant mother captured the living conditions in the West, showing lawmakers what people were going through. After it published, the United States government sent 20,000 pounds of food, and that image solidified support for the very first safety-net programs in America. Yet still today, more than 37 million Americans are still living in poverty. One in six kids.
As a student of economics and a career public servant, I know we’ve been at this for a long time. But it’s my work today that has given me the hope that we can finally end poverty as we know it. And here’s why. Right now, there are 80 public benefit programs all across the country, intended to provide critical anti-poverty resources. Yet an estimated 60 billion dollars in benefits go unclaimed every year. Sixty billion. I believe, in large part, due to complicated, outdated systems that weren’t designed to see the people they serve.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you lost your job, and you don’t know how you’re going to put food on the table. But you hear about this government program that can help. And you begin the process of applying. The first thing you realize is you can’t do it on the only online connection you have, your phone, because the only way to apply online is through a desktop computer. So you head to the community library, you go through screen after screen, answering close to 200 questions, wading through confusing instructions. It feels a little bit like a game of gotcha, except your benefits are at risk. Now, if you’re from a place like my hometown, a small rural farming town, there isn’t an easily accessible public venue with desktop computers. So you have to find a ride to the nearest social services office, maybe 30 miles away. When you get there, you have to walk through metal detectors with two security guards, past a long table of scattered paper forms into the main waiting room. It’s loud, and there’s a long line leading to that service counter. When you get to the front of it, you’re met with a thick, clouded sheet of bulletproof glass separating you from someone who could finally help.
That has been the system in America for many communities like mine. So it’s no wonder that 14 million Americans aren’t enrolled in child and food nutrition programs, or that six million are missing health care benefits. Technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives. It’s made things faster, more efficient, automatic. We need to do the same for people seeking benefits.
I work for an organization called Code for America. We deploy human-centered technology, the kind that respects you from the start, meets you where you are, provides an easy, positive experience. And our research has shown there are four factors we need to overcome. First, we know that far more people have access to the internet on their phone than a desktop computer. So applications should be online and mobile-friendly. Second, lots of people are falling off because the process is complicated. So applications need to be simple and easy to use. Third, we know that people who are eligible for one program, like food assistance, are pretty likely to be eligible for another, like health care. So let’s combine processes where we can. And finally, we know there are unseen heroes in government — caseworkers, social workers — on the front lines, navigating old systems. We can equip them with the data and tools to streamline their efforts.
Here’s what California’s food assistance used to look like. 183 questions, 51 pages of screens available only by desktop computer. We took that application and redesigned it. This is GetCalFresh, a mobile-first application available 24 hours a day in multiple languages, with chat support.
California’s food assistance application went from one of the most complex in the nation to being recognized as one of the easiest application experiences of any state. For 10 years we had been working with multiple states on projects just like that, showing the importance and potential of digital delivery of benefits. And that’s when the pandemic hit. And these images in West Valley, Utah; San Antonio, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Parking lots filled with families waiting for food. America could finally see what we had been seeing for a decade. The growing number of people in poverty and communities left out as a result of failing systems. Our phone started ringing. From Washington to Maryland, we helped states distribute 600 million dollars in benefits to kids in school lunch programs. Louisiana used our best practices tools in notifying people. They proactively sent out more than 40 million texts to residents on how to access critical services. And in Minnesota, we developed an all-in-one application for nine different safety-net benefits. That can be completed in less than 14 minutes.
Nearly 200,000 people immediately applied in the first six months. And for the first time ever, Minnesota’s system integrated to reach all sovereign tribal nation members.
That’s what is possible, and this is the moment to keep going, redesigning our safety net for a new time and a new age. And we can do it all across the country, as governments reset.
Over the next seven years, we will partner to redesign systems to unlock 30 billion dollars in benefits for 13 million eligible people in at least 15 states. We will bring data scientists and engineers, technologists and researchers together, sitting side by side with government teams. And our Safety Net Innovation Lab will improve upon and share best practices so that every government can benefit. Because at the heart of our audacious goal is to show the world what’s possible when we use the best tools we have today: human-centered technology and government. So that families aren’t waiting in parking lots for resources. Or kids, growing up like my dad, aren’t searching for food by whatever means possible. Then, then we will see the true potential of every kid. And that’s the calling of this moment to redesign our systems to see people, all people.