(Photo courtesy of Code for America)
In a political landscape overloaded with information (and disinformation), it can be hard to differentiate a voice from the crowd. And when it comes to policymaking for government services, many of the important people that should have a seat at the table, who navigate these services every day — those who understand these problems firsthand — aren’t always invited.
Over the past decades, with technology and design methods, it’s become easier than ever to aggregate and understand the modern needs of the user. And in the context of critical government services, ignoring those needs is unacceptable.
Today, the U.S. government delivers more than 80 services to lift nearly 50 million Americans out of poverty each year. Our national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provides $70 billion in food to eligible Americans each year. It is considered one of the most successful government interventions in alleviating poverty, and correlates highly with better health and education outcomes for children.
In D.C. alone, 1 in 5 residents receive benefits from the SNAP, that’s 6 percent above the national average.
With mobile phones in the hands of most low-income people, we’ve entered an age where it is easier than ever to meet people where they are. In an age where shift hours change and housing is often unstable or unavailable, we have the opportunity to ensure that government benefits are mobile and easy to access. This insight not only creates more effective systems for the public, but also makes local and federal governments themselves more efficient and cost effective.
Recently, the Trump Administration proposed a shift in a significant portion of the SNAP benefits to “Food Packages,” which would replace money people get on a debit card to buy groceries with a physical box of non-perishable food. Across the political sphere many have pointed out how out of touch this proposal is and here’s why: it fails to understand that a significant amount of people who receive food assistance do not have stable housing.
Nearly 30 percent of the SNAP applicants applying through California’s food stamp program, GetCalFresh, say they do not have stable housing. Instead of making the process easier, this Trump proposal actually lessens the impact government services could have by not understanding the user’s needs.
Social safety net programs should strive to reduce the friction in the lives who need help. They are the Americans who already have the most friction in their lives, and public policy must be anchored to the needs of the Americans it serves.
Right now, many policymakers are not developing legislation and programs that actually take into consideration how people experience these systems in real life. Many times we fail to explore or attempt to fix these roadblocks thinking that completely replacing these legacy systems is the solution. But it doesn’t have to be.
In California, we’ve seen our mobile-first site shorten SNAP applications from nearly an hour to under ten minutes. We’ve seen about a 30 percent increase in online applications. Code for America has worked with local social service agencies to communicate with, nudge and prompt applicants to ensure they complete their applications in a timely manner. This collaborative approach allows us and our county partners to get a clearer picture on how we can make government services simpler and more accessible.
So while politicians debate the merits of proposals like the “Food Package” SNAP program, we will continue to ensure government works better for all of us, and especially for those who need it most.
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