The majority of Americans have turned to at least one public benefits program at some point in their life for healthcare, food assistance, or economic support in times of need.
The social safety net is a network of largely disconnected supports that aims to promote the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and seniors—and to help them live with agency and dignity. But for too many people, the process of applying for and maintaining safety net benefits requires navigating a system with numerous barriers that push them further away from basic needs like food and healthcare.
A human-centered safety net is one that is simple, accessible, and easy for real people to use. It meets people where they are and provides clarity when there is confusion. And, most of all, it guarantees that the needs of clients are put first. When delivered effectively, a human-centered safety net has the potential to make a transformative impact on people’s lives.
We believe it’s possible to serve all safety net clients with empathy and dignity.
Learn how by exploring the five principles.
See how we’ve made strides toward achieving a human-centered safety net by exploring the pilots we’ve launched across the country.
Michigan: Design for Mobile First
The Integrated Benefits team partnered with Civilla to open multiple welcoming doors for people applying for benefits in Michigan. We developed a mobile-first digital assister to apply for SNAP and Medicaid simultaneously, as well as a two-way text messaging tool. The result? Days to determination decreased and approval rates went up.
GetCalFresh: Expanded Language Accessibility
The GetCalFresh team worked to close the participation gap in California’s SNAP program by creating new welcoming doors to expand the service beyond English and Spanish. Through human-centered research and testing, we successfully translated all enrollment content into Traditional Chinese—one of the most common languages in California.
Louisiana: Text Messaging to Reduce Churn
Our one-way text message pilot provided timely, specific reminders to help clients successfully navigate benefits renewal moments by making the process easy to understand. Clients who opted in to text message reminders achieved dramatic results, including a nearly 80% increase in kept WIC appointments and a 67% increase in successful annual renewals for Medicaid clients.
Colorado: Change Reporting PDF Redesign
In our Colorado Integrated Benefits Initiative pilot, we built a tool for clients to report common life changes that may impact eligibility to their cases, but we also looked at the caseworker experience and worked to help them process changes more efficiently. The existing PDF was a major source of frustration, and caseworkers reported that our prototype was much easier to understand.
GetCalFresh: Simplifying Questions About Income
Our GetCalFresh research showed that clients were confused about how to report income accurately on SNAP applications, so we worked to reduce frustration for both clients and caseworkers in the process. We learned that simplicity should not be confused with brevity— sometimes splitting a complex question into smaller components makes it easier to understand.
Michigan: Clear, Accurate Information for Case Determination
In the Michigan Integrated Benefits Initiative partnership with Civilla, our pilot helped caseworkers send text messages to request specific verification documents needed from clients in order to make informed decisions about their case. Because caseworkers could respond immediately to incorrect documents or requests for clarification from the client, problems that would take weeks to resolve via postal mail instead were corrected within minutes.
Colorado: Report My Changes
In Colorado, we designed a new change reporting experience that allowed clients to make informed decisions about self-service options to renew their benefits, while reducing the burden for caseworkers. Clients could submit reports without having to log into an account, provide collateral contacts in lieu of verification documents, and communicate about changes in circumstance.
Delivery-Driven Policy in California: RAP Sheet Waivers
Code for America Fellows helped the CA Department of Justice shift a policy simply by bringing a paper form online. Low-income residents who need access to their RAP sheet can have a $25 fee waived, but for years the DOJ was using the federal poverty line to determine who qualified, not adjusting for high cost-of-living areas. The Fellows helped the DOJ process respond to changing needs by moving the form online and adding county-specific data, effectively making the policy more accessible and equitable.
Michigan: Designing Clear and Concise Application Questions
In this Integrated Benefits Initiative pilot (run in partnership with Civilla), one of the most important design principles in our digital assister was to ask questions in ways that clients could understand, prompting them to take simple actions while still getting caseworkers the information they needed to make timely, accurate decisions. This pilot reduced time to completion to 10 minutes on average, while also decreasing the number of days it took caseworkers to make a determination.
GetCalFresh: The Application Workflow
Our earliest work to enroll eligible Californians in CalFresh started with a single-page web form with the only four questions. From this place of simplicity, we added questions over time based on feedback and our growing knowledge of which simple actions could boost application success. For instance, this constant iteration focused on supporting simple client actions ultimately increased the number of document verifications submitted with our applications by over 60%.
Vermont: Simple Ways to Submit Documents
This Integrated Benefits Initiative pilot, led by Nava Public Benefit Corporation, tackled the challenge of finding simple actions for submitting and processing eligibility documents that didn’t require mail or an office visit. Nava pioneered a quick and easy way to upload documents from a smartphone or computer that integrated seamlessly with Vermont systems and workflow, reducing the average times to both submit and process documents.