States Strengthen Work Support Strategies in First Year of Initiative

By Christine Johnson-Staub

In the midst of tighter budgets and cuts in benefits spending, some states are focusing on more effective administration of public benefits that support working families. They’re doing so because they know that these benefits, which include programs focused on nutrition, health care and child care, help families become and stay employed and promote children’s success in school and life. By streamlining eligibility processes and cutting red tape for these programs, states can reduce administrative costs and make it less daunting for working families to get the help they need.

For example, states involved in the Work Support Strategies (WSS) project are making administrative and programmatic decisions that help families more easily acquire benefits for which they’re eligible. Reports on the initial planning year of the project (2010-2011), released by the Urban Institute today, indicate that participating states have made progress in simplifying application processes, streamlining eligibility policies, and coordinating the administration of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and child care assistance.

As a partner in the WSS project, CLASP provides technical assistance to states to strengthen the administration of their child care assistance programs in the context of the broader WSS focus on coordinating across multiple programs. In the first year of the project, WSS states took steps to reduce barriers to families’ enrollment in child care assistance programs and to improve continuity of care for children. For example, Rhode Island evaluated the information about work hours collected on its child care assistance application form and the burdens put on both families and workers by verification of that information. Some participating states also identified “churn” – the movement of families off and on child care subsidies, usually for administrative reasons – as a barrier to subsidy use that they will be working to address in the remaining years of the WSS project. Strategies WSS states explored in their planning years included:

  • Simplifying application processes to minimize the amount of information that must be provided by families and verified by eligibility workers;
  • Creating stronger communication structures between child care assistance and other benefits like SNAP, to share eligibility data and minimize the number of administrative processes required for families who are eligible for multiple benefits;
  • Reducing or streamlining reporting requirements and lengthening eligibility determination periods, to reduce administrative burden and improve continuity of care.

Examples of state progress in other work support areas highlighted in the Urban Institute’s report release today include:

  • State and county staff in Colorado trimmed a 26-page application form for the Medicaid, welfare, food assistance, and adult financial-support programs to 8 pages. The planning-year report for Colorado tells more about building new links between the state and counties and between health and human services agencies.
  • In three Illinois pilot offices, the goal was to move from crisis management to process management by realigning workers’ tasks. Early signs show much quicker service delivery. Illinois’ report shows how the state approached transforming local office practices in the face of overwhelming caseloads.
  • South Carolina‘s Express Lane Redetermination helped sustain health coverage for tens of thousands of children and is projected to save $1 million a year, by using data in families’ SNAP records to certify children’s eligibility. As described in South Carolina’s report, this collaboration between previously isolated health and human services agencies exemplified a new vision of seamless services for families.

Participating sites are also considering how to leverage the new eligibility determination processes for health insurance being developed under the Affordable Care Act, and the temporary availability of enhanced federal funding for systems upgrades, to improve access to other programs.

WSS is directed by the Urban Institute in partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which leads technical assistance to the states. The Ford Foundation is WSS’s lead funder, committing more than $20 million. Additional funding has been provided by the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation of the Open Society Foundations, the Kresge Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.