The Transformative Power of a People-Centered, Digital-First Safety Net

An illustration of four people climbing a mountainous shape; one is reaching back to help the other two behind

We recently passed the one-year mark from when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the United States. In these early days of 2021, the pandemic rages on, as does the economic fallout that is affecting millions of daily lives. As of last month, more than 80 million adults—more than a third of all adults in the country—reported that it was somewhat or very difficult for their household to cover usual expenses. That hardship is especially prominent for households with children. One year into this crisis, we remain in an unprecedented moment of need. And yet, we’re also in an unprecedented moment of clarity.

All the frays in our social safety net have been on full display since the pandemic hit the US and we now know that digital access is not just a “nice-to-have” in benefits delivery. In a time of great uncertainty, closed offices, and social distancing restrictions, mobile-first digital access to the safety net has become a lifeline, and it’s one that needs to stay.

Much of the country now knows what we at Code for America have seen over years working on social safety net systems: the status quo isn’t working, especially for communities government must work hardest to reach.

The good news about a moment of such widespread clarity? It means that the moment is ripe for real systems change. We are at a critical inflection point in our nation, facing the biggest reform opportunity since the establishment of the New Deal, which stabilized the economy and provided relief to those who were suffering. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the social safety net to empower all communities by building a people-centered, digital-first safety net. This is not the time to make incremental changes around the edges—it’s the time to redesign the systems from the ground up.

These days, we can log on to most commercial websites through our Google accounts, make bank transfers with a few quick taps on a phone screen, and confirm any appointment by text message. Yet we ask families who are trying to put food on the table to prove their identity in person, visit an office during work hours, and navigate multiple complicated benefits forms and social safety net systems. If we commit to demanding better than this status quo, we can finally do right by those who have been left behind, ignored, and marginalized for far too long.

So what would a people-centered, digital-first safety net look like?

Imagine you are living paycheck to paycheck, and then lose your job. You have three kids at home and can only afford groceries or rent, not both. Instead of making that impossible decision, you spend five minutes applying for food benefits from your smartphone. While applying for food benefits, the application informs you that you are also eligible for medical coverage and unemployment, and may opt-out if you choose, but your single application will get you access to all three programs. You press ‘submit’ and immediately receive a text thanking you, confirming receipt, and letting you know what to expect next. A few days later, you receive an EBT card in the mail, a direct deposit for your unemployment, and simple information about your new health coverage. You continue to receive occasional texts and emails to help you use and maintain your benefits, with simple links to resources like childcare or employment and training opportunities, and maybe, even, an inspiring quote to help you through the day.

How do we know it can work? Because at Code for America, we’ve been working for ten years to show that a people-centered safety net is possible. And, the most important aspect of what we do is how we do it. We’ve been breaking through barriers and reforming bureaucratic systems by understanding what real people go through when they try to access government services. We’ve sat in living rooms with applicants as websites timed out over and over again, stood in long lines with families rushing to make it in time only to hear they need to return the next day, and partnered with caseworkers to go through every step of the process, identifying the biggest blockers and inefficiencies in these systems.

Partnering with real people to develop solutions over the last ten years is why we’ve been able to show what’s possible in a moment of great crisis for our country. By jumping in to help states deliver $1.4 billion in critical food benefits to students who counted on school lunches. By launching a product in one month to distribute $75 million to immigrants shut out from other stimulus funds. By partnering with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to stand up a brand new service in the middle of a pandemic and help distribute $62 million in flexible cash to families with low incomes. By helping more than 5 million Californians apply for food assistance through GetCalFresh. And by piloting new services around the country that integrate benefits programs and building that work into a blueprint for a human-centered safety net.

These are proof points of what can happen when you pair human-centered technology with government change agents who are ready and willing to shift services to meet people where they are. Imagine what would happen if all governments at all levels—from city to county to state to federal—were to take this moment to reimagine the status quo and push for something better? If there was ever a time for that kind of ambition, this is it.

We see a path forward, but we’ll need everyone. We need undaunted leadership from the federal government and support for the state and local governments charged with delivering safety net services. We need public servants at every level of government, technologists, volunteers, and community partners to work alongside marginalized communities in order to build a more equitable government.

In so many areas of our lives over the past year, we’ve had to dramatically change the way we operate. We can, and we must, do the same to reimagine a safety net that truly meets the country’s needs. We can use the tools of technology and policy and good implementation, and the energy and will of strong social movements, to advance a bold vision that gets us through the end of this crisis—and beyond. So that we never find ourselves in this position again. And so we realize a proactive, responsive government that meets the needs of the public, at scale. A government that isn’t just “modernized,” but transformed.