Family Finances

Setting a Vision for a More Integrated System of Public and Workplace Benefits

May 29, 2024  • Bianca Sofia Lopez & Sohrab Kohli

Together, public and workplace benefits are essential building blocks for financial security. Benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Child Tax Credit supplement income and provide needed stability. Paid family and medical leave and unemployment insurance protect income during critical times. Workplace emergency savings programs help households build resilience. Employer-sponsored retirement savings plans can put households on a path to building wealth.

However, our benefits systems are underperforming, and as a consequence, families must navigate structural complexities and imposed trade-offs that hinder their access to and use of important benefits. Using a combination of benefits or transitioning into and between benefit programs can be particularly difficult, leaving households with a set of benefits that may not be functional or best suited to their needs.

For instance, despite a quarter of U.S. workers relying on the public benefits system at some point each year, $140 billion in government benefits are left unclaimed annually, and an estimated 9 million Americans qualify for public benefits they are not receiving. Related to workplace benefits, a recent study found that many full-time workers misunderstand and underutilize their benefits. Sixty-two percent of full-time employees surveyed are not completely confident they know about all the workplace benefits offered, and 45 percent do not fully understand their benefits package.

The friction people experience when trying to access and navigate their public or workplace benefits—such as unclear processes or complex and varied eligibility and documentation requirements—can be particularly acute when timeliness is crucial, like during major life events, transitions, or financial shocks

To better address these points of friction, the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program (Aspen FSP) hosted an Idea Refinery on Benefits Interoperability on December 13, 2023, that convened benefits experts such as policy specialists, government officials, researchers, innovators, and leaders from the financial services, social impact, and philanthropic sectors. The exploratory workshop aimed to identify weaknesses in the U.S. benefits systems caused by the lack of integration between benefits systems (i.e., their lack of interoperability) and generate actions leaders could take to address them.

Participants identified these challenges and solutions through an in-depth exploration of two life experiences where benefits integration is often at its most important for a person’s finances and well-being: facing a financial shock and expecting a child. Building on frameworks developed by the Office of Management and Budget’s Customer Experience teams, participants analyzed the processes and trade-offs people must navigate and the benefits decisions they must make during these pressing times. Participants then identified potential solutions and strategies to reduce friction in our benefits systems and better support individuals and their families.

This blog post summarizes the key takeaways from the Idea Refinery and points the way toward a more integrated system.

Five Dimensions of Benefits Interoperability

We use “interoperability” to refer to the seamless access to and effective integration of our public and workplace benefit systems. Interoperable systems are synchronized to reduce friction and trade-offs imposed by suboptimal user experience (UX) design and rules governing identity and income verification, eligibility requirements, and re-enrollment. At the Idea Refinery, the gathered experts identified five key dimensions of interoperability:

  1. Interoperability between public benefit programs. Households may rely on a combination of public benefits, including programs offered by different levels of government, such as federal, state, Tribal, and municipal governments.
  2. Interoperability among a suite of workplace benefits. Workers may need to use a combination of workplace benefits during a single life event. For example, when having a child, a worker may need to access their company’s paid leave policy, short-term disability program, health insurance plan, supplemental health insurance plan, health savings account, and even an emergency savings account.
  3. Interoperability between public and workplace benefits. Many people rely on both public and workplace benefits. When labor income is insufficient, public benefits can help households become financially whole. In fact, in 2021, 12 million wage-earning adults were enrolled in Medicaid, and 9 million in SNAP, and approximately 70 percent of adult wage earners in both programs worked full-time hours on a weekly basis. People may also transition between public and workplace benefits systems. For example, when experiencing the loss of a job, people lose access to workplace benefits and may need to enroll in public programs like unemployment insurance.
  4. Interoperability between the benefits of different members of the same family or household. A worker may need a set of benefits, such as health insurance, that provide coverage to a spouse or dependent children.
  5. Interoperability with other systems, such as our financial system. Households may need access to a bank account or other financial services in order to access or realize the full value of their benefit. Households who do not own bank accounts may incur additional fees to interact with the financial system and access their benefits. Other benefits may include alternate payment systems, like Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, which have differing features and consumer protections compared to mainstream financial products, making them difficult to access or more susceptible to problems like fraud. For instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rulemaking on Section 1033 of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which would provide consumers with greater access and control of their own financial data, does not currently include EBT cards.

These dimensions illustrate how households piece together our public and workplace benefit systems to supplement or protect income, reduce cost-of-living expenses, and build financial resilience and wealth. However—given the siloed nature of these systems—households often face various barriers to accessing and utilizing these benefits in a way that is responsive to their unique needs, potentially leaving families with insufficient support to build financial security.

Principles of an Interoperable System

Gathered experts also identified three key principles of an interoperable benefits system: person-centric, responsive, and broadly accessible. Together, these principles would lay the foundation for a system that enables recipients to seamlessly enroll in, navigate, and leverage a set of benefits that sufficiently meet their needs: 

Person-centric. The design and delivery of our benefit systems should reflect people’s lived experiences. Person-centered practices would enable intuitive navigation and compatibility between systems so households are not left with gaps in their respective safety nets. Recipients should have access to empathetic and culturally sensitive support and guidance while completing applications and receiving benefits.

  • “There is a lack of trauma-informed care and processes implemented for the end-user.” – Refinery participant

Responsive. Benefits delivery should be timely and predictable. This would prevent households from experiencing a lapse in income, coverage, or other support. A responsive system would recognize that the need for certain benefits may be urgent and would have the infrastructure to make benefit determinations and initiate coverage quickly.

  • “A lack of efficiency can come at the cost of resilience.” – Refinery participant

Broadly accessible. People would be met with the information and guidance they need to apply for the right set of supports, regardless of where they seek out their benefits and in the context of their whole situation—meaning, people would not hit dead ends when navigating different websites or offices to connect with the right set of supports.

  • “Adopting a ‘no wrong door’ approach would reduce the burden on people as they try to figure out what benefits work best for them.” – Refinery participant
Pathways to an Interoperable System: Informational and Structural Unlocks

Participants identified two key pathways consisting of solutions, or ‘unlocks,’ aligned with the principles above that may reduce or eliminate pain points felt by participants as they navigate their public and workplace benefits. These pathways offer a vision for an interoperable benefits system that eases the burden for recipients and administrators alike.

Informational Unlocks: To enable the successful completion of benefit applications, our current public and workplace benefits infrastructure must be more accessible, easier to navigate, and destigmatized. Participants identified two key solutions where better information can improve benefits delivery and options:

1. Benefit providers should integrate high-tech and high-touch support mechanisms. This includes leveraging technology—to provide easy access to benefit status, multi-channel communications and notifications (e.g., text alerts), benefit recommendations based on a person’s situation, and seamless navigation—while allowing the option to connect with real people when hands-on assistance is needed.

  • Unlock in Action: The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a redesigned human-centered website in January 2023. The website architecture was completely overhauled and reconfigured based on how users navigate the site, with direct input from people served, partners, and other stakeholders. Iowa HHS is also rebuilding its community-based services and creating a network of local navigators. (For more information and other examples, see our blog post, Highlighting Innovative Actions to Improve Public Benefits Delivery.)

2. Advocates, community-based organizations, and policymakers must continue to reduce the stigma around public benefits by challenging negative characterizations and misinformation that may result in the non-participation of eligible individuals and families.

Structural Unlocks: To enhance access to and compatibility between existing public and workplace benefits programs, benefits administrators should create streamlined applications, simplify identity and eligibility verification processes, and enable cross-enrollment and automatic enrollment in essential benefits. Participants surfaced three structural unlocks:

1. Federal and state policymakers, regulators, and administrators should permit and support the implementation of responsible data sharing—within and between benefit systems—with appropriate, person-centered data standards and data privacy guidelines.

  • Unlock in Action: Over the past two years, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) has built a scalable cross-program enrollment data infrastructure and automated the process to match Medicaid, SNAP, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) enrollment data. NCDHHS has used this data to identify individuals who are enrolled in Medicaid or SNAP programs and likely eligible but unenrolled in WIC, identifying at least 200,000 pregnant or postpartum women, infants, and children who were enrolled in Medicaid or SNAP and likely eligible but not currently enrolled in WIC. This data has allowed NCDHHS to pilot targeted outreach methods, such as text messages, to promote enrollment in WIC. (For more information and other examples, see our blog post, Highlighting Innovative Actions to Improve Public Benefits Delivery.)

2. Workplace and public benefit providers should explore responsible artificial intelligence (AI) solutions that could reduce costs and mistakes in determination and improve the information individuals receive when making critical benefits decisions. Participants felt artificial intelligence and other technologies have the potential to speed up or streamline certain processes, such as benefit recertification—a point at which many eligible households lose access to their benefits.

  • Unlock in Action: Social impact company Overalls launched its LifeConcierge using a team of experts and a machine learning algorithm. This tool reduces the burden of navigating benefits by providing workers with the information they need, such as coverage options and pricing structures, to understand, select, and manage the set of benefits best suited to their unique needs.

3. Policymakers and benefits administrators should support the adoption of inclusive income and identity verification processes that accept alternative forms of acceptable identification. In doing this, there should not be different tiers of quality; benefits determination and delivery should remain responsive and timely, regardless of which verification option someone uses.

  • Unlock in Action: Social impact company AidKit has streamlined the identity and income verification process for cash assistance programs by employing adaptive and inclusive methods. Addressing the challenges faced by refugees, the unhoused, and others in providing standard identification and income documents, AidKit utilizes a “human-in-the-loop” method coupled with automation. AidKit accepts alternative forms of identification, such as foreign passports and driver’s licenses, and offers the option to verify identity through interviews with screeners and confirmation from community-based organizations when traditional documents are unavailable. For income verification, AidKit considers eviction notices, rent arrears letters, and self-attestations supported by e-signature. This comprehensive approach ensures that even those without conventional IDs and income proofs can successfully verify their eligibility and access their benefits.
Advancing Toward a Truly Interoperable System

Not only can benefits interoperability provide greater financial stability and security for families, but interoperability may significantly reduce the administrative burden on recipients and administrators alike, freeing up valuable time and resources. At the 2024 Financial Resilience Summit, Xochitl Torres Small, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, emphasized how benefits modernization is important to reduce program caseworker turnover as “customer service and experience really also relates to employee morale.” 

Federal and state governments, nonprofit organizations, employers, benefits providers, and the technology sector all have a role to play in answering these questions and taking steps toward developing an interoperable system alongside those with lived experience with benefits. In addition to the work benefits leaders are already doing to integrate their systems, gathered experts agreed that identifying opportunities for further collaboration—through research, data collection, convenings, pilot programs, community engagement, and outreach to policymakers—is the right starting point to enact change.


The Aspen Institute Financial Security Program thanks Guardian, The Hartford, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Prudential Financial, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their generous support of the Idea Refinery on Benefits Interoperability.