Improving access, cutting red tape: state lessons from work support strategies.

Author:Lower-Basch, Elizabeth

Access to key benefit programs, like health insurance (Medicaid), nutrition assistance (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and child care assistance (the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG), reduces poverty, (1) supports stability and success at work, (2) helps people meet basic needs, (3) and improves low-income children's long-term health and economic well-being. (4) But despite the large and growing body of research demonstrating these successful outcomes, disadvantaged families frequently do not receive and keep the full package of benefits for which they are eligible. As many as a quarter of families eligible for both Medicaid and SNAP miss out on one or both. When capped programs such as child care or housing are considered, the participation rates are much lower. (5)

Recent evidence illustrates how several states achieved large-scale improvement in families' access to the full package of programs, using opportunities that exist today under Medicaid, SNAP, and the CCDBG. This evidence comes from a rich series of evaluation and technical assistance reports from the Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative, a foundation-funded initiative led by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and its national partners, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute. The WSS provided funding, peer learning, and expert technical assistance from 2011 to 2016 to six diverse states (Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) to design, test, and implement more effective, streamlined, and integrated approaches to delivering key supports for low-income working families with two goals: ensuring that all families get and keep the full package of benefits for which they are eligible and reducing the burden of bureaucratic processes. Among the problems states targeted--which burdened both families and state workers--were overly complex policies and procedures, inadequate computer systems, and bureaucratic hassles such as confusing notices, long waits to meet with a caseworker, or duplicative verification requirements.

As Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter explains, "Idaho is committed to helping families find paths out of poverty and into the workforce. That means making smart investments in technology and integrating services not only to reduce the costs to taxpayers but more importantly to help people find the jobs they need to support themselves and their families. This effort is aimed at increasing self-reliance and enabling success, not fostering entitlement and government dependence."

In reviewing the final evaluation, implementation, and technical assistance reports, we find five major lessons:

  1. Significant improvements in key outcomes, including participation in the full package of benefits without loss of accuracy. Other accomplishments included much faster delivery of benefits (some states doubled and tripled same-day services) and in some cases, reduced "churn," or cycling on and off benefits. (6) Receiving benefits faster is crucial for families who frequently experienced hardships such as housing loss or food insecurity while waiting for a benefit determination.


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