Work Support Strategies: Measure of Progress

By Carrie Welton

Public programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid, provide critical support to millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet due to low wages and lack of steady hours or work. However, too many families still face significant challenges accessing the supports they need. Application processes are often complex, burdensome, and time consuming for both applicants and the staff of social services offices. To address these issues, six states took on the challenge of reforming technology, policy, and business processes through the foundation-supported Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative.

Each of the WSS states used data to inform and assess state efforts. Two new reports from the Urban Institute detail the data that guided the states’ efforts and provide an update to important metrics for tracking the initiative’s effects. The first report examines changes in the number of people who were jointly eligible for both SNAP and Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in each state. As expected, the proportion of adults eligible for both SNAP and Medicaid increased significantly between 2013 and 2015 in states that adopted the Medicaid expansion available through the Affordable Care Act, while the number stagnated or declined in non-expansion states. This report also analyzes the rates of people participating in both the nutrition and health care programs in three WSS states—Illinois, South Carolina, and Idaho. South Carolina saw significant increases for both adults and children while Idaho, which already had very high rates of joint participation, saw little change. Illinois, which expanded Medicaid, saw declines in the share of people jointly eligible for both programs who were enrolled, even though the number increased sharply. The 50-state joint eligibility data provided in this report allows other states to calculate their own joint participation rates.

The second report from the Urban Institute highlights how WSS states used information about the client experience to improve program access and participation. Investigators used client surveys to assess people's experiences about interactions with staff, the clarity of the information they received, the speed of receiving benefits, and other factors. These surveys helped social service offices target their efforts to deliver benefits faster, simplify processes, and improve the overall experience of their clients.

The WSS initiative highlights the importance of thinking about both the collection and use of data from multiple dimensions. Data can be used not only to develop targets and for accountability but also to support learning and transparency. The WSS states used data as a key part of their reforms by continually testing assumptions, seeking feedback, and adapting along the way. Tracking data on client satisfaction and on joint participation sends an important message about the need to put clients at the center of the eligibility process to support hard-working people in their efforts to gain economic security.