The Tech Response to COVID-19 Shows How to Fix the Safety Net

July 8, 2020  • Sara Soka, Chad Smith, Jordan Thomas & Justin King

The COVID-19 pandemic has done extraordinary damage to the US economy and sent massive waves of Americans to seek assistance from the safety net. The unprecedented demand has highlighted many of the shortcomings in both the standard technology that governments use to deliver public benefits and shortcomings in the policies that comprise the safety net. Political leaders across the nation are coming under intense criticism for failures to deliver those critical benefits to people in dire straits.

Meanwhile, a set of organizations are working with and outside of governments to help meet the challenges of the moment by applying modern technological practices to improve the function and experience of the safety net. Their approach highlights a path to fix the troubled systems that deliver the safety net and mend its policy gaps—but more modern technology is just one component of meeting the demand imposed by COVID-19. The most important ingredient? A relentless focus on the people using the services.

This post builds on forthcoming work from the Beeck Center and Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, as each organization is engaged in studying the ways in which data, design, technology, and innovation are reshaping the existing federally safety net.  This summer, the Beeck Center is publishing the first installment of a living report that details how innovators are making it easier to enroll in safety net benefits, and what they identify as overarching needs. Aspen FSP will publish a landscape analysis exploring the size, scope, and reach of this emerging field.

The modern safety net consists of a wide array of programs with varying eligibility levels and aimed at supporting various needs. No one program meets all the needs of those who seek assistance, and accessing help can be a challenging, siloed, and burdensome process. Millions of people receive assistance purchasing food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Mothers of young children get nutrition support through the Women, Infants, and Children program. Some households can acquire help heating their homes through frigid winters with the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Limited and temporary cash support is available for some families through Unemployment Insurance and to fewer families through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are new, temporary programs offering food and cash support under the strain of COVID-19.

The safety net in America is also defined in part by its reliance on private entities to deliver aid. Social sector organizations like the United Way and Catholic Charities have long played a role in connecting people in need to benefits offered by the state by providing free enrollment services. Low-income workers seeking to access hundreds or thousands of dollars in public benefits from tax credits, such as the Earned-Income Tax Credit, pay for-profit companies like Intuit and Jackson Hewitt to properly prepare and file their tax returns to ensure they get those funds.

Technology is just one component. The most important ingredient is a relentless focus on the people using the service.

What is more novel is that in recent years a growing number of organizations bearing some of the characteristics of the modern tech industry have arisen and applied design skills, data science, agile development methods, user research, and ultra-modern technology in service of supporting access to the safety net. “We’re making America’s safety net more user-friendly,” proclaims the website for Propel, a Brooklyn, NY based company that has built an app called Fresh EBT, which allows users to easily check the balance of their SNAP account and access other supports. “Transforming Benefits Access,” states the website of Benefits Data Trust (BDT), a Philadelphia, PA-based non-profit that helps people connect to multiple public benefits in six states. The operative ethos for those supporting the development of a tech-enabled safety net seems less “move fast and break things” and more “the user is always right.”

As COVID-19’s economic damage rages across the nation and government agencies are scrambling to meet the need, organizations dedicated to the development of a tech-enabled safety net are supporting those government services and helping shoulder the burden of massively increased applications. They’re expanding their services and working to share what they’ve learned about providing support digitally so that service providers nationwide can rapidly transition their own services.  They’re also promoting changes to policy and benefit delivery based on their own quantitative data and the qualitative evidence derived from their close contact with people experiencing America’s most rapid explosion of joblessness in history. Here’s how.

Meeting Increased Demand

Benefits Data Trust seeks to “transform how individuals in need access public benefits.” Like other social sector and governmental agencies across the nation, BDT has seen a dramatic increase in demand. “In a recent week, the call volume was 79 percent higher than in the weeks that preceded the pandemic,” explained Trooper Sanders, CEO of BDT, in an article published by the Philadelphia Citizen. Benefits Data Trust staff worked remotely to help callers determine which benefits they’re eligible for and assist them in applying.

Code for America, a non-profit based in San Francisco, CA, has also kept pace with the rapid increase in demand.  The organization built and maintains a website, that allows residents of California to apply for that state’s SNAP program. In a recent blog post, Senior Program Manager Eleanor Davis wrote about the impact of COVID-19 on SNAP applications. “While California has seen a 55% increase in overall SNAP applications over the past month, GetCalFresh has experienced an increase of more than 300% … In the midst of this public health crisis, it’s more urgent than ever that government services operate effectively in a digital-first environment.” Code for America also engaged quickly with California and Minnesota’s state social service agencies to bring P-EBT benefits to families with children eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school.  Together, they developed state-specific implementation plans, websites, and outreach strategies.  In the first week, California’s website went public, 1.3 million children were enrolled, meaning their families would get funds to help pay for groceries while schools are closed.

Rapid Surveys & Data Analysis

Benefits Data Trust and Code for America’s ability to track and meet increased demand shows the tip of the iceberg in the potential of data-driven and tech-centered organizations to inform the public and policymakers about rapidly changing conditions. As part of their on-going user research work, Code for America has systematically analyzed nearly 5,000 messages from users and applied those insights to improving their GetCalFresh product, providing insight to California’s Department of Social Services and to other states. Leveraging a large user base and established relationships, Propel has frequently performed surveys of their users to derive insight into their needs and experiences. One recent random survey of more than 900 users yielded six key insights about life during the pandemic.  It highlights extreme need, with those surveyed reporting lost earnings, the risk of running out of food and losing housing, and difficulty in accessing support from the government.

Meeting Users Where They Are

Propel’s survey process unveiled a core need for their users that was outside of their traditional service area—people needed cash. That specific understanding of user needs led to a swift mission pivot and the formation of a partnership with another organization. Give Directly has established experience in delivering cash to people in need. Working together with other partners, Propel and Give Directly launched an ambitious new initiative, Project 100, an effort to raise $100 million in donations and deliver $1,000 cash payments to 100,000 families in need. As of mid-June, the project reported delivering funds to 99% of the targeted families.

Alluma, a non-profit organization with offices in California and Arizona, provides technology solutions and consulting services to different levels of government as well as non-profits and other partners. Like many of the organizations previously mentioned, Alluma champions “people-first design” by getting to know people who need benefits and their lived experience, and centering equity in their approach. As part of the organization’s response to COVID-19, Alluma published a user journey map to assist benefits administrators in meeting people where they are and offering “low-tech fixes for better customer service.” Listing challenges such as “Incomplete or incorrect documentation of eligibility submitted,” the journey map then shows possible causes, including troublesome submission mechanisms, and solutions, like allowing users to enter info via chatbox or text message, eliminating methods that can create barriers, like mailing documents.

Organizations developing a tech-enabled safety net support government agencies and help shoulder the burden of massively increased applications.

Nava is a public benefit corporation based in Washington, DC that was founded by members of the team that rescued “Build Together” and “Inclusion is Essential” are among the organization’s central values. Nava’s Domenic Fichera wrote about a successful user-centered approach they undertook with the state of  Vermont. Nava team members worked to understand the challenges involved in submitting documents that verify identity and income and how this created a barrier for Vermonters seeking assistance from a variety of state programs. Nava developed an uploader tool that can be used across programs.  Once implemented, it substantially increased the speed with which documents were submitted (55% of users were able to submit documents within one day of the State requesting them, compared to just 11% before) and met with significant approval from users (98% said they would use the uploader again). Nava and the State of Vermont are offering the tool to other states and agencies, saying “The uploader tool can be adapted and reused–not only for other programs across the State of Vermont–but for any benefit program.”

US Digital Response (USDR) is something of a unique organization, a collective of volunteer technologists founded by four former Deputy US Chief Technology Officers in response to the pandemic. USDR receives specific requests for assistance from state and local governments and matches them with experienced technology, data, and design practitioners who work remotely with government agencies. Volunteers sign an oath, demonstrating awareness that they are acting in supporting roles to the public servants on the front lines.  Volunteers also understand that government workers are also users of the systems being designed, and operate under constraints and are almost always doing their best to serve the public. One project that USDR volunteers have built is a template application for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which assists states in implementing this benefit in a user-centered way, “captur[ing] the minimum required data and help[ing] users submit a clean claim.”

Collaborative Building with Users

mRelief, a Chicago, IL-based non-profit, builds tools that allow people to apply for SNAP “without it contributing to the already stressful circumstance of poverty.” To achieve this goal, mRelief works to meet their prospective clients where they are, writing that, “We do not take internet access and literacy for granted. We build tools on equalizing platforms such as SMS, develop features for all levels of internet speed, and work to create the simplest forms possible.”

mRelief’s SMS-based SNAP screener now functions in all 50 states, helping individuals in need determine their likely eligibility and begin the process of applying for SNAP by simply answering a few questions via text message. Building on the fact that users of technology tools that access the safety net are not just applicants and recipients but social service workers, mRelief has partnered with Catholic Charities and the caseworkers at the organization to build a new client management tool that supports remote connection. Johnnie, named after welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon, allows caseworkers to connect with people who mRelief’s tools have screened eligible for other benefits. “We aim to build with our partners, not just for our partners,” wrote mRelief’s Zareena Meyn and Dize Hacioglu in a blog post that introduces the tool.  Ultimately, Johnnie will offer a host of other features, like allowing clients to select a contact method (such as text, telephone, or email), support for document submission, and case monitoring.

Connecting Benefits Dots

The multi-faceted nature of the safety net creates fragmentation that negatively impacts people in need. One approach to solving this problem is to create directories that facilitate access to the safety net by allowing users to search for local and national public and private supports. Aunt Bertha, a for-profit company based in Austin, TX, allows users to search for “free or reduced-cost services like medical care, food, job training, and more” based on their zip code. By serving even very rural areas, this directory is unique. A search for Waterloo, Iowa reveals that “1,426 programs serve people in Waterloo, Iowa” across 10 categories of support. When the pandemic landed, Aunt Bertha launched a new web platform, FindHelp.Org, and focused on adding important resources to search results, including each state’s unemployment program and emerging mutual aid networks. At one point the organization reported adding 200 new listings and resources daily to the site.

One Degree, a non-profit based in San Francisco, CA provides similar search services dedicated to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and a growing number of other communities across the country. The organization produces and updates a COVID-19 Resource Guide daily in the communities that it serves. One Degree has also introduced another tool that helps vulnerable people connect the benefits dots, the organization offers a Common App that allows users to quickly apply for multiple public benefits, including health insurance and nutrition assistance.

Streamlining benefits applications to reduce the burdens faced by applicants and increase the efficiency of government and service providers has been a long-standing goal. Single Stop is a New York-based non-profit with a national footprint that is dedicated to tackling this problem. Their stated mission is to “…build pathways out of poverty by leveraging partnerships and technology to connect people to existing resources, all through a unique one-stop shop.” In response to COVID-19, the organization has worked to keep clients informed about the wide array of benefits and other assistance that are available to them by releasing fact sheets with specific information about how help can be accessed in the areas Single Stop serves (including 10 states and Washington, DC). In addition to fact sheets, Single Stop has made their previously private benefits screener public for the first time. The organization also offers free online tax filing services, a useful combination for providing cash support to families. Not only are tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit an important part of the safety net, but tax filing helps to expedite the delivery of pandemic-related cash support, such as the Economic Impact Payments (EIP) legislated through the CARES Act.

Policy Reform

The safety net as it existed prior to the dawn of COVID-19 was badly in need of modernization, both in terms of how it was accessed by people needing assistance and in terms of the set of policies that define it. The extreme pressure of the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated many of these flaws. To their credit, policymakers acted quickly in recognition of the insufficiency of the safety net to cushion the pandemic’s blow–enacting expanded unemployment insurance, increased nutritional assistance to replace meals provided by shuttered schools, and the one-time cash infusion provided to a wide swath of Americans through the EIP. Tech-enabled safety net organizations have advocated for closing gaps in the safety net and centered the voices of their users in pushing for specific policy reforms.

Aunt Bertha used their blog to call for additional cash resources to meet the massive financial need induced by the pandemic, “Providing the flexibility of cash is going to be important during this time of uncertainty….For now, it is hard to believe any investment is too much. Let’s hope the federal government is up to the task of making big, bold investments now to blunt the worst of the impact.”

Speaking at a digital event hosted by the Aspen Institute, Benefits Data Trust CEO Trooper Sanders urgently pressed for streamlining access to the safety net in response to COVID-19. “If we are putting up barriers to reduce a one or two percent error rate, but blocking access for 20, 30, or 40 percent of people…we know that those barriers are killing people,” he said.

Code for America released a COVID-19 SNAP Policy + Delivery Memo in April 2020 calling for the rapid implementation of a number of policy reforms based upon their experience with the SNAP program, and punctuated each policy recommendation with quotes featuring real user voices underscoring the need for the policy change. A recommendation that the federal government provide funding and technical support to support SMS and other digital methods of communicating with people with these quotes from real clients:

“I gave you my email and texting number… I am a deaf man and I can’t hear voicemail. Thank you for understanding.”

“I missed my recertification date because I did not receive the forms. You had the wrong address on file despite the fact that I updated it when I applied for SNAP. I called your office… However, with the coronavirus issue, I want to know if I can recertify for SNAP online.”

Collective Impact

In April 2020, a number of tech-enabled safety net organizations formed an umbrella group to respond to COVID-19 and increase the impact of their approach. The Social Tech Collaborative “is a group of nonprofit, social impact organizations focused on leveraging technology to transform how public-serving institutions deliver and manage social support and services to better serve the community.” Member organizations include Alluma, Benefits Data Trust, Code for America, Civilla, mRelief, One Degree, and Single Stop. In order to help the administrators of the safety net meet the increased demand for food, health care, housing, and other basic needs, the Collaborative is publishing installments in an online playbook with “practical and timely guidance” on using technology, design, and a human-centered approach to best effect. Some playbook entries to date include:

According to the Social Tech Collaborative, “These best practices drive processes and IT systems to be more human-centered, user-friendly, efficient, and outcome-driven.”

COVID-19 has the potential to accelerate the impact of modern digital technology on the safety net. However, there’s no guarantee that an accelerated technological transformation will yield increased benefit for people suffering through the intense deprivation caused by this pandemic, or the more mundane deprivation that existed before February 2020 and will certainly exist after.

As Alejandro de la Garza reported recently in Time, “40,000 people across Michigan… were wrongly accused of unemployment insurance fraud between 2013 and 2015 as a result of a privately-built, error-prone software system operated by the state with minimal government oversight…. [A]s cash-strapped states and cities around the country turn to similar systems to save money and streamline operations, more Americans could get wrapped up in a similar bureaucratic nightmare.”

Fixing the troubled systems that deliver the safety net and mending gaps in the underlying policy as America works to stabilize and recover from COVID-19 can vastly accelerate the adoption of modern technology in public benefits. But genuinely meeting the needs of people experiencing near- and long-term vulnerability will require more than just new technology, it will require a relentless focus on design that centers their experiences.

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