The explosion of web-based technologies in recent years has been reinventing the way government delivers services and connects with potential benefit program applicants and participants. The purpose of this scan was to produce a compendium of efforts—both publicly and privately sponsored and hosted—that use web-based technology to interface with low-income individuals and families to increase their access to public assistance benefits for which they may be eligible. It was not intended to promote particular efforts, since no attempt was made to assess their relative success. In fact, to date, very little research has been conducted on the impact these technologies have had on benefits access. Collecting extant data on outcomes (along with the contexts in which the efforts operate and their potential for sustainability, replicability, and expansion) will be a key objective of forthcoming in-depth case studies of a subset of efforts identified through this national scan. Beyond the efforts of this study, there is a need to conduct more primary collection of impact data through rigorous evaluation of select efforts.
Despite the dearth of hard evidence on effective approaches, planning for the next generation of benefits access technologies is well underway through efforts like the Partnership Fund. In addition to concepts proposed through the Partnership Fund’s Collaborative Forum, the next generation of efforts might include applications for smart phones that provide benefit program information, screeners, calculators, and electronic application forms. The seeds for such efforts have already been planted through initiatives such as text4baby, a free mobile information service designed to promote maternal and child health. Text4baby is an educational program of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB). Women who register for the service receive free Short Message Service (SMS) text messages each week with information they need to take care of themselves and their babies prenatally and through the first year of life. According to promotional materials (see http://www.text4baby.org/index.html), “Mobile phones have potential to play a significant role in health care by delivering information directly to those who need it most…and can be particularly helpful in reaching underserved populations. While not everyone has access to the Internet, 90% of Americans have a mobile phone.” Mathematica is conducting an evaluation of the initiative that will look at the characteristics of women who used text4baby, assess their experience with the initiative, and determine whether text4baby is associated with timely access to prenatal care and healthy behaviors. The results could have implications for mobile information services designed to increase access to varied public benefit programs.
What may define the future of benefits access initiatives most prominently is the manner in which states implement the electronic enrollment and data exchange provisions of the ACA. While primarily intended to bolster participation in health insurance programs, DHHS guidance is clear about its intention to encourage seamless integration of all health and human services programs, particularly SNAP and TANF, over time.
This effort to catalog existing benefits access efforts highlights an evolving convergence of federal, state, and private efforts to use technology to reduce the administrative burden and cost of public benefit programs as well as support low-income individuals and families in times of need. The scan captures these efforts as they are at one point in time, but they will likely continue to evolve and expand. As implementation unfolds, it will be essential to monitor the implications of program innovations not only on benefits access but also on the related issues of privacy, data security, administrative costs and efficiency, and program accuracy.