At Code for America, we have always believed that government must work for the people, by the people, in the digital age. In the midst of a national (and global) pandemic—with schools closing, families in need of food and childcare, and people unable to access a government office for critical benefits—the stakes of government working for those who need it most have never been higher.
Code for America is positioned to provide immediate assistance to both people and governments in need during the COVID-19 crisis. In the past few weeks we’ve been inundated with incoming requests for help responding to this unprecedented mass-unemployment event, while also adapting our existing services to better meet the needs of the moment. This post gives an overview of our efforts to respond to the crisis and help make government work for the people who need it most in this time of urgent need. And stay tuned, both here and on our social channels—in the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing deeper dives into all of this important work.
A stronger social safety net
Many Americans have turned to at least one public benefit program at some point in their life, and in the midst of this crisis, even more people will need these essential support programs. As we know from our work creating a more human-centered safety net, applying for and maintaining safety net benefits requires navigating a complicated system with barriers that can prevent people from accessing essential basic needs. And at a time of great need during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the most vulnerable among us are becoming even more so.
Through our work delivering GetCalFresh, we have a unique view of the growing demand for food assistance. The volume of applications we’ve received in the past two weeks has been unprecedented, over four times higher than usual. We also hear stories directly from applicants, many of whom are newly unemployed and vulnerable, and terrified of what the future holds. We’re taking these insights to partners at all levels of government and advocating for urgent policy responses, like last week’s decision to waive SNAP enrollment interviews nationally. Meanwhile, we are also being asked to prepare reference materials and trainings around best practices in online safety net benefits delivery that our Integrated Benefits Initiative team has piloted in states across the country.
We’re also responding to new requests for help. A new P-EBT program was authorized by the recent Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It will provide families with free and reduced lunch (FRL) students a monthly SNAP allotment to supplant school meals during crisis school closures. States are generally well positioned to extend the new benefit to families who are already on SNAP, but getting children onto the program who are currently not enrolled in SNAP will be more challenging. We’re exploring how we might help states with implementing this program, and we continue to stand at the ready to help if and when other forms of disaster relief are approved.
Tax credits and recovery rebates
COVID-19 has forced the closure of the majority of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites across the country, limiting access to free tax preparation services for low-income families. These services are particularly critical when tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) could give families a much-needed base of flexible cash support during this time, and doubly so when the recovery rebate payments included in the CARES Act also rely on whether you’ve filed taxes in the past several years.
To help working families claim the EITC and other tax credits, Code for America launched the only online, mobile-friendly application connecting taxpayers with VITA’s services at GetYourRefund.org. We originally envisioned the 2020 tax season as a low-volume pilot to test our new digital service model for tax preparation services, but with VITA sites across the country ceasing in-person operations right at the height of tax season, we are expanding as quickly as we can to fill the gap. The federal government has extended the tax filing deadline to July 15, giving us time to onboard new VITA partners across the country and get more families flexible cash through this new digital service.
People-powered mutual aid
Coordinated and well-trained volunteers in our Brigade Network are playing an essential role in scaling GetYourRefund. They are helping with onboarding and supporting local VITA organizations, experimenting with social media outreach campaigns, and more.
The people power of our Brigade Network also provides much-needed capacity for a breadth of community and government services at the local level. Our Brigades include over 25,000 volunteers distributed across 80+ cities nationwide, committed to Code for America’s values and dedicated to helping their governments be responsive at this critical time.
Brigades are actively organizing mutual aid work in their communities across the country, and we’ll be highlighting examples of these projects in the coming weeks. Our Brigade Network is also a core coalition partner in efforts to recruit state and regional volunteer workforces to help with a variety of technical and data needs emerging from local, state, and federal government. Our network of volunteers is coordinated and ready to serve where they can make the biggest impact, as governments at all levels are increasingly relying on community volunteers to meet the scale of this crisis.
US Digital Response
Code for America is also a key partner in the US Digital Response, being led by our founder and board member Jennifer Pahlka. The goal of the effort is to create a platform to match vetted, high-quality volunteers and trusted services/tools with government groups at all levels who are in need to provide timely and critical help with the COVID-19 crisis. With over 1,800 volunteers already stepping up, including members of our own Brigades, we are helping with volunteer systems and coordination, and sourcing needs from state and local governments in order to match them with support on data, digital services, design, technology, and innovation.
Clearing the way for a more equitable economic recovery
In the U.S. today, one in three people have a criminal record that appears on a routine background check. That means that 70 to 100 million people are left out of the workforce, unable to get student loans or housing, and face a host of other obstacles to living a self-sustaining life. As the economic impacts of the current crisis are playing out day by day, it is clear that they won't be short-term. People with criminal records face the hardest road to finding jobs in a normal economy, much less one in recession. And as the current crisis only exacerbates the racial economic disparities in our country, clean slate policies are more important now than ever so that we can create a more equitable path to recovery, and a second chance for those affected by the criminal justice system. Our team is more committed than ever to the work of creating automatic record clearance a reality across the country.
It has never been more important for government services to be simple, accessible, and to work for the American people—especially for those who need them most. Stay tuned for more deep dives into the work we at Code for America are doing to make this a reality.
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