At Code for America, we believe a human-centered safety net is possible. We believe government must work for the people, and by the people, in the digital age, starting with the people who need it most. We are piloting new service delivery approaches through the Integrated Benefits Initiative and helping Californians apply for food assistance through GetCalFresh. As we advocated for states across the country to take a more human-centered and agile approach to their safety net programs, we realized we did not know how close they were to realizing our vision—or how far they were from it.
The first step to changing a system is understanding the status quo. We started with a seemingly simple question:
What do people experience when they apply for social safety net programs?
To answer it, we analyzed every online instance of each state’s applications across five core safety net programs screen by screen—more than 75 applications in total. We chose to focus on SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, WIC, and LIHEAP because these are large federal programs that states (and sometimes counties) have considerable leeway to implement. The data collected is current through January 2019.
We have created a first-of-its-kind view of the state of benefits applications across the nation from a client perspective. While there are some bright spots where states have made great progress in bringing their benefits applications online, we believe there is an enormous opportunity to make significant improvements in the user experience of almost every state’s online application.
Our simple inquiry quickly revealed that the user experience for applying for our national benefits programs varies greatly by—and sometimes even within—each state. Three of the most important questions in understanding this landscape are:
In an age when Americans increasingly shop, read, watch, communicate, bank, and learn on the web, there is a fundamental assumption that services should be available online. Benefits applications are no exception to these consumer expectations. People who rely on benefits applications to weather challenges and get back on their feet come from underserved populations where traditional service delivery is not enough. For many users, mail is frequently unreliable, work schedules are unaccommodating to business hours, and field offices are located far from home. We believe that government services should have many welcoming doors. Making applications easily available online is one of the most important first steps in meeting users where they are.
While online availability is a great first measure of human-centeredness, combined benefits applications help show which states are thinking holistically about their users. If a client is eligible for one benefits program, there is a strong chance that they are eligible for others. Integrated applications are a win-win. For clients, they can raise awareness of other programs and create a single, streamlined experience for applying for or maintaining benefits. For states, integrated applications can reduce demands on limited caseworker time, improve cross-agency coordination, and ultimately help lift up clients to get through difficult circumstances with coordinated responses.
Most states have a combined application of some sort, usually across Medicaid, SNAP, or TANF. However, it is rare for states to have combined five or more safety net programs.
Whether a benefits application is online and/or combined with others does not say much about the application itself. One of the best measures of how an application functions from the perspective of clients is time to completion. Time to completion is highly relevant to perceptions of the application experience, and functionally relevant to busy clients who apply online from public or borrowed devices. Time to completion aggregates all of the little frictions in the user experience, like registration challenges, page complexity, and form design. And regardless of a state’s eligibility system, it is measurable by simply shadowing real users.
Time to completion aggregates all of the little frictions in the user experience.
Given the many variations of systems, sharing summary or comparative statistics on time to completion is difficult. Differences in completion time of tens of minutes may seem minor, but they add up across the millions of people who rely on the safety net. Despite their states delivering the same three federal programs, Montanans only spend an average of 30 minutes on an application compared to Minnesotans’ 110 minutes. In other words, if the 1.1 million Minnesotans who use Medicaid were able to use Montana’s application instead, more than 167 years of client effort would be saved.
Below, we estimate how long it would take an average user to apply for all of the online programs available in each state. Some states have a single combined application. Others have multiple separate applications. What is immediately clear is the wide variation in time to completion for the same federal programs. A general rule of thumb is that states that have combined applications perform significantly better on time to completion metric, although there are exceptions.
While online, combined, and time to completion are great summary questions, our research found several other common patterns that help illustrate what a client may encounter in each state. These variables add an additional layer relating to access and usability, and we’ve summarized them below in profiles of each state’s status quo.
We created profiles for each of the 50 states to summarize how human-centered their safety net is across our metrics. Below, we highlight three states with application experiences that span the spectrum, from the excellent application in Michigan to the multiple cumbersome applications in Connecticut.
A typical client can complete a benefits application for four programs in about 20 minutes, which is the best time to completion in the country. The application is mobile friendly, and while the state uses identity proofing, it is not required for a client to proceed with their application. However, users are required to register in order to submit an online application, which can be a barrier to uptake.
Like most states, Michigan does not have an online WIC application; clients must call their local WIC agency to set up the federally required in-person appointment. One opportunity would be to develop a short online pre-application so that clients can start the process online and schedule appointments directly, as states like Pennsylvania have done. Incorporating this into the excellent combined application (rather than as a standalone) would be even better.
1 site, 4 programs
The state has made recent strides in improving the process for users, but there is still some untapped potential to create a better overall experience.
A client needs to complete separate applications for SNAP/TANF and Medicaid, and there are no online options for LIHEAP or WIC. Only one of the applications is mobile-friendly (Medicaid), and both require registration to start an application online. Identity proofing is not a barrier to applying for either application.
One of the biggest opportunities to improve is on time to completion. Applying to both SNAP/TANF and Medicaid takes approximately 70 minutes across 69 screens. Creating a single, streamlined experience is one of the biggest opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Louisianians.
2 sites, 3 programs
Like in Louisiana, three of the five benefits programs are available online across two applications. Connecticut offers clients the opportunity to complete both applications at once, but it involves starting in one application, redirecting to a new page for the second, and then coming back to finish on the original page—missing the opportunity to combine and streamline the experience.
There are additional challenges, including length. Completing both applications takes an estimated 110 minutes, one of the longest processes in the country. Both applications require user registration, and the Medicaid application makes passing identity proofing a requirement. Neither application is mobile friendly.
The cumulative effect of these design barriers is to vastly narrow the set of people who Connecticut can serve online. Only those users who can pass identity proofing software checks, navigate cumbersome registration procedures, and devote almost two hours of uninterrupted access to a desktop computer can apply for Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF online in Connecticut.
2 sites, 3 programs
Learn more about the Integrated Benefits Initiative.Read more
Interested in a more detailed analysis of your state’s application?Get in touch
This 50 state assessment was supported by our generous partners and donors, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Walmart.org. We are also grateful for the excellent data visualization support from Kerry Rodden.