Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations. I Web-based Benefits Access Tools


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. Increasingly, public and private organizations are using the Internet rather than traditional paper application methods to bring people into public assistance programs. Public and private entities have developed three key types of web-based technologies intended to help people apply for benefit programs in which they do not currently participate: (1) online screeners and benefit calculators with interactive software to help people assess their eligibility for programs and estimate their level of benefits; (2) online applications that can be filled out, printed, and then delivered to the program office(s); and (3) online applications that can be submitted electronically, relieving the pressure of relying on mail delivery or delivering applications to program offices not conveniently located or open during convenient times. Many efforts offer some combination of the above.

Most web-based benefits access tools developed recently are intended for self-service use by potential recipients, but certain barriers prevalent among the low-income population, such as lack of access to computers and the Internet and low levels of literacy and computer literacy, may limit their utility. Some subgroups of the low-income population may face unique barriers that further limit the utility of these tools. Examples include homeless and disabled individuals who often lack the documentation necessary to verify information submitted in an online application or noncitizens who may be confused about eligibility rules or fear that accessing government benefits will jeopardize their residency or citizenship status.

In this paper, we discuss specific barriers and needs among various segments of the low-income population with respect to access and use of web-based benefits access tools, and provide examples of strategies intended to mitigate these problems. It is the fifth and final component of a project Mathematica Policy Research conducted under contract to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with funding from the Administration for Children and Families, and the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The first component of the project was a national scan of web-based benefits access efforts, through which we identified and summarized 86 efforts (Kauff et al. 2011a). The second component of the project involved case studies of a small subset of the efforts identified in the national scan. The third and fourth components were an issue brief (Sama-Miller and Kauff 2011) and a report (Kauff et al. 2011b) that summarized findings from the case studies.

In this paper, we draw on the data collected during the case studies. To supplement information from the case studies, we also conducted a limited literature review and draw on other Mathematica projects. There have been no rigorous evaluations of the strategies presented in this paper; thus, we describe potentially promising practices used by public and private entities to reach some of the most vulnerable low-income individuals and families. In this introductory section, we describe the case studies. In Section 2, we discuss barriers to access and the unmet needs of specific subpopulations. In Section 3, we detail several strategies for mitigating these barriers. Finally, in Section 4 we discuss the implications of this research for the future development and implementation of web-based benefits access tools.

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