Harnessing people centered technology to transform the US social safety net
Code for America will transform the US benefits system to bring user-centric and digital-first social services to more than 13 million Americans.
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Over 37 million people across the US live in poverty and rely on the social safety net — a web of more than 80 public benefit programs — for food, shelter, and medical care. During the pandemic, public benefits were a critical lifeline for hard-hit families and they continue to be a powerful lever for fighting poverty. Yet despite the proven positive outcomes delivered by these programs, more than 25% of people living in poverty aren’t connected to any federally-funded safety net benefits. Millions of others are under-enrolled, even for benefits they may be eligible to receive. This leaves more than $60 billion in benefits unclaimed every year. Many of the barriers to enrollment lie in the design of the systems themselves. These programs were built to operate offline and require multiple touchpoints, in-person or by mail. Enrollment processes are long and arduous and communication is often formal and intimidating. These are systems with little consideration for people’s lives and cultural experiences.
The tools of human-centered technology can radically modernize benefit systems, by addressing barriers to enrollment, usage and retention. Code for America plans to create a national Safety Net Innovation Lab, which will make a significant and immediate difference in the lives of over 13 million new beneficiaries across 15 states. This lab will unlock $30 billion in benefits for low-income families while improving services for millions more. This project will also serve as a powerful proof point for the online delivery of government programs, providing a model for other states and agencies on how to offer services that meet people’s needs and treat them with respect and dignity.
The Safety Net Innovation Lab will make anti-poverty programs more effective and equitable, by moving touchpoints online and closing the enrollment gap. Informed by the real-life experiences of applicants, program participants and case managers, the Lab will focus on three main areas: (1) Improving delivery of SNAP food assistance; (2) Enabling digital enrollment for WIC supplemental nutrition for women, infants and children; (3) Integrating benefits applications whenever possible. Code for America’s process begins with research and discovery to surface barriers. Next, they design a suite of solutions that are user-focused, while working within a state’s context. Finally, they work with partners to elevate policies and implementation shifts that will improve benefits systems at the national and state level. Together, these efforts will increase participation and reduce expensive churn.
Why will this succeed?
For the past decade, Code for America has pioneered a replicable, data-driven agile process for building digital-first benefits access solutions, working with a dozen state government partners to make the most of public resources. From the ability to upload documents by taking a picture on your phone to automatic text message reminders for interviews, Code for America solves for real-life hurdles. In partnership with San Francisco County in 2014, they created GetCalFresh, a “digital assistant” to help users navigate the food assistance program SNAP which, rolled out statewide. GetCalFresh helped three million people access food benefits in 2021. At the height of the pandemic, Code for America worked with California and Minnesota to unlock $619 million of emergency food benefits for school-aged children — and helped distribute $75 million in emergency cash to undocumented immigrants in California ineligible for CARES Act support.