Tools for a more accessible, streamlined public benefits system

Jun 09, 2011

By Abigail Newcomer

For millions of low-income people, working full- or part-time does not equate with making ends meet. Low-income families with children in particular often have expenses that far exceed their incomes.  Federal and state governments have assistance programs that help families fill the gaps, including food, housing and child care assistance, health care programs, and refundable tax credits that make work pay.

These supports can be a huge help to struggling families, but often many do not receive all of the benefits for which they qualify.  A 2007 analysis from McKinsey & Company found that $65 million in public benefits that could help families make ends meet go unclaimed. Part of the reason could be that families and individuals may not know about programs or where to access them.  Application and documentation requirements for some programs can be confusing or there may be stigma surrounding support.  Additionally, for people struggling to balance work and family, they simply may not have time to go to an array of public offices to be screened and apply for assistance.

As part of a larger effort to make sure low-income working families receive the needed and available public supports for which they qualify, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released a report on web-based tools that provide outreach, eligibility information, screening and enrollment for multiple public benefit programs. In a time of tightening state budgets, these tools can also improve efficiency and reduce state administrative costs.

The HHS report, developed by Mathematica, Promoting Public Benefits Access Through Web-Based Tools and Outreach: A National Scan of Efforts, provides an overview of 86 online efforts to combine, streamline, and simplify access to and coordination of these public supports. It includes tools administered by federal and state government agencies as well as those housed in private and community based organizations.  Though it does not formally profile "offline" outreach and enrollment efforts, it does discuss and place them in context with online efforts.   This report will be followed by more in-depth case studies of selected efforts later this year.

This report will serve as a valuable reference tool for individuals, advocates and practitioners wanting to know what tools are available in their states or communities, as well as for policymakers seeking to understand the range of outreach efforts.

At a time of increasing poverty, a fragile economy and high unemployment, policymakers are right to highlight public and private efforts to improve access to and coordination of existing and much needed family supports. 

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