In 2019, Code for America conducted a first-of-its-kind national assessment to evaluate the landscape of public benefits enrollment across the United States. At that time, we found many public benefits programs lacked online, mobile-friendly, and integrated applications.
Since then, the landscape of America’s social safety net has changed dramatically, with more program applications online than ever before. Yet, the online enrollment experience varies widely across programs and states—and additional challenges arise based on a person’s digital literacy, language barriers, and technology access.
We are excited to announce an update to that assessment: The Code for America Benefits Enrollment Field Guide. The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide focuses on usability, accessibility, and human-centered experiences. Through this project, we seek to:
- Explore the varying approaches to online benefits enrollment across states
- Showcase best practices for online safety net benefits applications
- Celebrate the states that propel government toward a more human-centered safety net
How the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide captures human-centered experiences
For many clients, the process of enrolling in and keeping safety net benefits can be time-consuming, confusing, and disruptive. For states, inefficient processes and inflexible technology create unnecessary workloads. All of this can lead to caseworker burnout, churn, and processing delays that prevent people from receiving critical food and housing assistance, medical care, and other safety net services.
The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide looks at the landscape of America’s safety net benefits experience in 2023 and tracks the differences from our 2019 assessment based on expanded evaluation criteria. It also highlights successful paths to equitable, human-centered experiences.
The Field Guide
Explore the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide
Our analysis shows that someone selected at random today will likely have a clearer, faster, more comprehensive experience enrolling in benefits than four years ago. Use the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide to learn more about how states compare across programs and a variety of best practices for benefits enrollment websites.
We looked at online enrollment for Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
States progress toward improving digital enrollment
In general, the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide shows that states are moving more enrollment experiences online. This means people don’t need to spend as much time interacting with government agencies in person or on the phone—something that can be logistically challenging for working people, people with families, or those living with disabilities.
States are also adding more mobile-friendly applications, a major win for people with low incomes who are smartphone-dependent.
More states have online applications than ever before
Many states have answered the call to move their benefits applications online, which means people no longer need to mail, fax, or hand-deliver their applications.
Online applications can help streamline processes for agencies and make benefits determinations faster.
States have launched 44 new online applications since 2019. Some states that already had online applications built completely new ones, while others brought applications online for the first time.
Integrated benefits applications continue to grow
Integrating benefits applications helps residents apply for multiple benefits in one place. They can streamline the collection of common eligibility criteria across programs, saving clients time and creating a more holistic experience. They also have the added benefit of raising awareness for other programs for which clients may be eligible.
For example, a client who only knows about and applies for SNAP may discover they are eligible for other programs through an integrated application. At the government agency level, integrated benefits can streamline operations, reduce administrative costs, and improve cross-agency coordination.
- Since 2019, 8 states have added one or more programs to their integrated benefits applications.
- 15 states now offer four programs in a single application, up from 12 in 2019.
- 5 states now offer all five programs we assessed in a single application—something no states offered in 2019.
Mobile responsive sites are more common
Nearly 27% of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year are smartphone-dependent, meaning they do not have broadband internet at home and rely on their smartphones for internet access. For these individuals, a lack of mobile options can be a huge barrier to securing benefits. Fortunately, we’ve seen an increase in mobile responsive benefits applications, but there is still room for improvement. Since Americans are more likely to own smartphones than computers, it’s important to develop mobile-first benefits websites.
- Today, only 52% of benefits programs have a mobile responsive website available.
- Of all the online applications we analyzed, including integrated ones, 69% were mobile responsive, up from 43% in 2019.
States increase self-service and additional support features
Self-service features help expedite the benefits enrollment process for both clients and state workers. We found many examples of states offering self-service support.
Online access for notices
Many clients can log in to online portals to access benefits notices containing critical information and instructions to complete enrollment. Receiving these notices online, instead of through the mail, means clients are more likely to meet deadlines. Online notices are also more likely to reach those who don’t have a consistent mailing address or stable housing.
Some states have experimented with new, mobile-friendly document uploaders that allow clients to easily upload photos taken with their phone. This provides an easy way to complete a critical step in benefits enrollment that normally requires faxing, mailing, or hand-delivering documents. The best uploaders are separate from the application and don’t require an account login.
A new feature on the landscape: Live chat
For the first time, some states offer live, human-backed chat support, or live chat. Chat support helps clients ask questions quickly without waiting in long call center queues, and offers states improved feedback loops to identify and improve common pain points. We also saw an increase in chatbot services, which can be helpful in routing people to the support they need. However, chatbots alone often have less value to clients compared to live chat, or a combination of live chat and chatbots.
In many states, it’s getting faster to apply for benefits
The time it takes to complete an application is a strong signal for an overall application experience. It aggregates friction in the user experience, like registration challenges, page complexity, and form design. Long applications can be burdensome, especially for clients with families or multiple jobs, people living with disabilities, or anyone who applies from public or borrowed devices.
Taking the time to intentionally redesign and integrate benefits applications in a human-centered way can greatly improve completion time for clients. For example, an Oregon resident in 2019 needed an estimated 80 minutes to complete a Medicaid application and a combined SNAP and TANF application. After Oregon streamlined and integrated these applications into one enrollment experience, we estimate the process now takes as little as 15 minutes to enroll in the same benefits.
Many states are making major improvements to lower completion time.
States still make benefits enrollment unnecessarily difficult for clients
Code for America envisions a human-centered safety net that guarantees the needs of clients are put first. But despite moves across the nation toward a more human-centered enrollment experience, it’s still far too complex to apply for benefits online. As a result, clients are likely to misunderstand requirements or submit incorrect information, which means it may take longer for them to get the benefits they need and can strain caseworker capacity.
Concerning trends in online benefits enrollment experiences
“Locked” front doors
Applications require complex account registration processes before clients can even open the door and peek inside.
Offer a “guest” enrollment that doesn’t require account registration, and explain the advantages of having an account.
Knowledge-based verification (KBV) of identity
States require applicants to verify their identity using multiple choice questions about their credit history and personal data before being allowed to fill out and submit an application.
States should consider whether identity proofing is necessary at all. If it is, use approaches that are less discriminatory and less burdensome on the applicant than KBV.
Language and accessibility
Not enough support for people who do not speak English and those who use assistive devices to understand and respond to online content.
Prioritize quality translations and update enrollment websites to meet accessibility standards.
Household and income questions
Complicated questions and user interfaces are difficult for people with complex situations to navigate.
Use client-tested questions and designs to lessen uncertainty and reduce cognitive load.
Locked front doors: Nearly 70% of applications require account registrations
This forces clients to complete a series of complex actions. Many clients cannot even look at the application without first:
- Owning and confirming an email address
- Submitting CAPTCHAs
- Setting security questions
- Creating and remembering a complicated password
- Retrieving security links
At minimum, states should offer a “guest” enrollment that doesn’t require registration, like Colorado. While account registration can help clients take actions, such as check an application’s status or receive electronic notices after they have applied, registration should be optional and the advantages should be explained.
Knowledge-based verification (KBV) of identity: A 75% increase since 2019
Twenty-five states now require or nudge clients to verify their identity using questions about their personal and credit history in at least one benefits application. KBV identity proofing (sometimes called remote identity proofing) is concerning because its reliance on credit history creates barriers to enrollment for clients with limited access to credit or limited credit histories. Access to credit has racist and discriminatory underpinnings, especially for people with low incomes and immigrants. Credit history databases have also been compromised in data breaches and used in identity theft schemes.
States should consider if identity proofing is necessary, and where it should be placed so it doesn’t create barriers for applicants. They can also consider what federal and state datasets may be available to compare applicant information against (such as social security numbers, applicants’ drivers licenses, REAL IDs, or benefit case numbers). Providing this kind of information is less burdensome for applicants, especially when they can decide whether to provide an identifier, are offered multiple options about what identifier to enter, and can read a clear explanation of the advantage of providing it (such as receiving faster Medicaid determinations). Other identity proofing methods—like tools that require users to upload images of their faces and identity documentation—may avoid the pitfalls of KBV, but raise a host of other issues around equity, accessibility, data security, and privacy.
Household and income questions: Limited designs for complex situations
Many states use non-intuitive design patterns and limited questions when asking about complex living situations and income sources.
Some examples in applications include:
- Designs that don’t give guidance about how or whether to include household members or income sources
- Prompts that contain complex questions without clear guidance or space to answer them
- Hard-to-see or strangely placed buttons to add rows for household members or income sources
These issues may leave clients confused or wondering if they’ve submitted correct information.
How states can lessen uncertainty in their applications:
- Ask client-tested questions that are inclusive of many situations.
- Ask simple questions. Use those responses to ask only follow-up questions that apply to the applicant’s situation.
- Allow flexibility that captures changing incomes and fluctuating pay periods. This more accurately reflects people’s real experience.
Language and accessibility: Support is limited
Supporting people who prefer a language other than English is an enormous opportunity area to increase application completion rates and improve equity in benefits delivery. In many cases, program, state, or local regulations require that public services are offered in non-English languages and that written documents are translated into threshold languages.
About half of online benefit applications nationwide are available in Spanish. However, these translations are sometimes only provided through machine-backed translation services, without evaluation by a fluent speaker. Quality translations of other languages are even less common. A more human-centered approach involves an investment in digital translations that focus on localization and multilingual research. The federal government offers best practices for multilingual websites.
We also found wide variation in accessibility practices when we measured websites’ accessibility scores with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. Accessibility should be at the forefront of web content and states should center people of all abilities in their digital front doors. The below tips are just the beginning of creating stronger accessibility practices for online applications:
- Make websites navigable by means other than keyboards.
- Create content that works with screen readers, including using alternate text on images.
- Add video captions.
Use human-centered solutions to close the participation gap
These trends across state platforms make for challenging and inequitable experiences for the tens of millions of people who attempt to enroll in benefits online. Participation gaps, or the difference between who is eligible for and who receives benefits, still exist in many safety net programs. For example, of the estimated 12.5 million people who are eligible to receive WIC benefits, only 6.3 million participate in the program, a nearly 50% participation gap. Similarly, there are nearly 7 million people who are eligible for SNAP who do not participate. Creating more human-centered enrollment experiences can help close these participation gaps and provide life-changing benefits for millions of people.
Celebrating progress toward a human-centered safety net
While there are still many opportunities for improving the digital enrollment experience across the country, we’d like to celebrate the states that have taken innovative and practical steps to improve their benefits applications. The examples below highlight some of the ways states have taken a human-centered approach to improving the online enrollment experience. We hope these examples inspire others.
Welcoming front doors create positive experiences
A benefits website should have a welcoming and accessible front door, which includes the homepage, navigation, and any pages that lead to an application. Intimidating pages with complex navigation and required account registrations can discourage visitors from applying for benefits. This can mean the difference between securing safety net benefits or becoming another person who falls through the participation gap.
Benefits application websites should offer a way to quickly begin the process, with clear start points and guidance on what to expect, including how to continue without an account or identity proofing.
Below are a few ways states have created a welcoming experience with their homepage and application.
Mississippi’s Access offers a clear “Apply” button, toggles for three different language translations, and a font size adjuster.
The second page jumps right into program selection, with an overview of the application steps and a progress bar.
Another standout front door is Massachusetts’ DTA Connect. The homepage offers six language translations, a guidebar explaining how to identify official state websites, and clear buttons to begin SNAP and TANF applications.
Further down, the homepage provides an explanation of the application process, a screener, information on average food benefit per month, and a hotline for immediate support. Clicking “Apply SNAP!” immediately takes you into an application flow that sets expectations for the process and highlights support by phone, while preserving the six language toggle translation options.
Clear, easy design patterns encourage submissions
Design patterns are a user experience (UX) practice that aims to solve usability problems for website users. Good design patterns make it easier and faster to navigate sites because they reduce the mental effort it takes to engage with a website.
For clients, this means they are more likely to submit applications. It takes less time to complete and results in fewer errors, since there is less risk of accidentally hitting the wrong button or not knowing how to answer a question.
Each page of an application should be easy to understand and act on:
- Use familiar words, be concise, and use headlines to make it clear what each page or section is about.
- Group similar questions together.
- Adjust the questions you ask based on the answers you’ve already received (gating questions).
- Remove unnecessary questions and pages.
- Make buttons, entry boxes, and content big enough so people using a mobile phone don’t have to zoom to use them.
- Test applications with clients, so they can tell you what works and where they get stuck.
Michigan’s MI Bridges application lets people apply for multiple benefit programs in a single application flow, and has clear, easy-to-use design patterns that work well no matter if a person applies using a mobile phone or a bigger screen.
Kentucky’s kynect benefits application has strong design attributes, similar to MI Bridges, and uses gating questions as part of its application flow.
Go beyond the application to support clients
A good experience isn’t limited to the application itself. It’s also about being able to find answers to questions, ask an expert about a case with minimal wait time, make and reschedule interview appointments, see the status of an application, and renew benefits online. Since 2019, we’ve seen these and more online features that support clients at different points in their benefits journey.
The District of Columbia’s District Direct offers many services to clients besides applications. Clients can check their application or renewal status, read notices, upload documents, update their contact information, view their benefits balance, and find navigators.
Explore by state
Explore the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide by state
Select the state, district, or territory below to see screenshots of each state’s application highlights and how they compare to best practices for human-centered enrollment experiences.
The screenshots shown from each online application only represent some of the pages of that application, not every page. We’re offering a glimpse of each online application’s desktop computer experience and mobile experience by including pages from its account registration, applicant, household, and income questions.
Partner with us
Expand benefits enrollment in your state
We’ve partnered with states across the country to develop integrated benefits applications, document uploaders, and other improvements to make the benefits delivery process more seamless for both clients and state agencies.
Contact us to learn more about how we can help in your state.
You can also join our mailing list to receive tips and stay up to date on best practices for a human-centered safety net.
The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide was supported by Code for America’s generous partners and funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’ is a registered trademark of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the United States and is used with permission.
The findings and conclusions contained within the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the funders.
Special thanks to our colleagues at the Digital Benefits Network, a project of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, for their collaborative research that supported both the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide and their assessment of digital logins and identity verification, as well as their review of this content.
We are also grateful to Ben Golder, who led data visualization for the Benefits Enrollment Field Guide.
- The Benefits Enrollment Field Guide looks at online enrollment for Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), and The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). For 2023, we removed the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), since it is a relatively small program that is primarily administered locally.
- The data collection for online applications occurred between September 2022 and February 2023. This assessment expands on the 2019 data by including:
- Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico
- Evaluations of website performance, plain language, and accessibility
- Support for languages other than English
- Common application components like questions related to income from multiple sources and/or self-employment and reporting complex household structures
- Self-service features (like document uploaders) that support people trying to enroll in benefits
- Many states have landing pages, or portals, where people can create an account, complete online separate applications, and take other steps to enroll or manage a case. Though portals are helpful, we define integrated benefits applications as those that allow a person to apply for multiple benefits in a single enrollment experience. A portal that links to separate benefits applications is not considered an integrated benefits application.
- In our assessments, we only considered WIC and CCAP applications “online” if they could be accessed by any state resident. We did not consider programs fully online if they were only available to people in select counties within a state.
- For WIC specifically, we defined online applications as those that collect information that helps determine the applicant’s income eligibility for the program (though there are other demographic and nutritional program criteria). Some states have an online option to request a WIC enrollment call or appointment, which we do not consider to be a full online application.
- The digital enrollment experience varies greatly for each applicant’s unique circumstances. We used a standardized, representative household profile to assess applications, except in cases where identity proofing required shadowing a state resident. The estimates used for “time to completion” should not be taken as precise and representative of all client experiences.