Federal, state, and local assistance programs provide an array of benefits to low-income families and individuals. They include funds to purchase food, subsidies and vouchers for housing or child care, cash for general living expenses, and help accessing health care and prescription drugs. Needy families and individuals can qualify for multiple programs, which may be funded, regulated, and administered by different federal, state, or local agencies. For a variety of reasons, however, these benefits may not reach the people they are intended to help.
Indeed, as much as an estimated $65 billion in public benefits has not been claimed by eligible individuals and families (Waters-Boots 2010), and only about two-thirds of those eligible for the nation’s key entitlement programs—Medicaid, SNAP, and SSI—actually participate (HHS 2008; Leftin 2010; GAO 2005). Eligible families may not participate for a variety of reasons, including perceived stigma associated with receiving public assistance. They may lack understanding of eligibility requirements application processes, or may decide the demands of the application and recertification process are not worth the amount of benefits they would receive. Additionally, the complicated mix of eligibility requirements can confuse potential applicants, who must deal with several agencies and provide the same information to different staff in different offices.
The extent of the burden on applicants depends on how—and how well—agencies coordinate procedures for intake, eligibility determination, and case management across programs. Their efforts have been stymied by poorly integrated technology systems, made even more complicated by the confidentiality issues associated with the cross-agency sharing of information. Data systems incompatibility, which makes data sharing across programs difficult or impossible, only adds to the burden on applicants and program staff. The resulting frustration can both discourage applicants from pursuing all benefits to which they are entitled and make it difficult for program staff to identify the full array of programs for which applicants might qualify.