Treating Benefit Applicants with Dignity and Respect

By Parker Gilkesson

Last December in New York, a single mother named Jazmine Headley lost her one year-old son’s child-care subsidy. The New York Human Resources Administration (HRA) should have notified her that she was at risk of losing her benefit. But Jazmine never received this notice because of an administrative oversight. 

What happened next brought her story national attention. Jazmine took a day off from work to visit her local benefits office, hoping to regain her child-care subsidy. Without this crucial benefit, she was forced to bring her son with her. After four hours in a crowded waiting room—sitting on the floor and refusing to leave—Jazmine was forcibly removed and arrested by police. Her small, crying child was pried from her arms. 

Jazmine came in with a genuine concern about losing child care. But she left in handcuffs. While the violence and arrest were unusual, the rest of her story is common. Many applicants are treated with disrespect. Families are frequently cut off from benefits without explanation. And public benefits offices have lengthy waits as well as limited space. 

I’m a former benefits eligibility worker: the person you talk to when you’re seeking Medicaid health insurance or SNAP food assistance. I understand the administrative burdens within a public benefits office. State agency workers have large caseloads, and the mounds of paperwork to assess and approve cases can be daunting. It’s never acceptable, but it’s not surprising that administrative oversights prevent eligible applicants from getting benefits. 

People who qualify for assistance shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to enroll and stay enrolled. Moreover, no one should be treated like Jazmine Headley was. During a recent hearing before the New York City Council, Jazmine gave a moving speech about her experience. 

She stated, “I may need help from time to time, or have to get help from time to time. But getting help does not mean I am not a person. It doesn’t mean that I can be treated anyway…Really, it comes down to treating all people, including working people, mothers, poor people, young people, with dignity and respect.” 

Administrative processes don’t get much public attention. But they’re just as important as eligibility rules in determining whether families living in poverty  can access critical health and nutrition programs that enable them to thrive. As a benefits eligibility worker, I did my best to ensure my clients felt listened to, respected, and well informed. However, as one worker, my power to change flawed practices, computer systems, and processes across the agency was limited.

CLASP has worked closely with states to change policies on the national and state level to prevent families from losing their child care subsidies because of “churn” or other administrative issues—confronting the need for more simplified processes along with less punitive and more respectful benefits offices. Although there has been some progress, there is still more work left to be done to decrease administrative burden within child care, SNAP, and Medicaid policies.

CLASP launched Advancing Strategies to Align Programs (ASAP)  to help state advocates increase SNAP and Medicaid enrollment by reforming, streamlining, and integrating service delivery. The project provides technical assistance to advocates in nine states, with the goal of decreasing “churn” as well as improving computer systems, best practices, and policies. CLASP also works with state child care administrators and advocates on child care subsidy policy improvements.

This work is critical to ensure people with low incomes receive the help they need when they need it. They should never have to wait all day in a crowded office or resubmit the same paperwork over and over.

If you’re interested in engaging in similar work in your community, we’d like to hear from you.  Please contact Suzanne Wikle (