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Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations

Publication Date
Oct 31, 2012

By:
Cicely Thomas and Jacqueline Kauff
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

 

This paper summarizes findings from eight in-depth case studies conducted for the "Helping Vulnerable Populations Access Public Benefits through Web-based Tools and Outreach" project. The paper discusses specific barriers and needs among the various segments of the low-income population with respect to access and use of web-based benefit access tools, and provides examples of strategies intended to mitigate these problems. Low-income populations included in the report include: limited English speakers and noncitizens; homeless and unstably housed individuals; reentering prisoners; rural populations; students; veterans; and seniors.

This Report is available on the Internet at:
http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/12/mitigatingbarriers/rpt.cfm

"

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.

A. Web-Based Benefits Access Efforts

Primary data used in this paper were collected from case studies of a small subset of 86 web-based benefits access efforts identified by a national scan of web-based benefits access tools completed under the contract (Kauff et al. 2011a). All 86 efforts used web-based technology to interface with potential program applicants to help them access multiple federally funded benefit programs for which they qualify but in which they do not participate. Some were developed and are managed by public agencies, some by private organizations, and some by a combination of these. Some of the administering entities intentionally developed strategies to mitigate barriers to use of web-based tools among vulnerable subgroups of the low-income population, and some did not. Their approaches were largely driven by whether their intention in developing the effort was to increase program access, increase program efficiency, or a combination of both. The case studies featured efforts with more complex, interactive features—such as an online screening tool and electronic application submission—and different types of management structures. The case studies included the following efforts:

ACCESS NYC. ACCESS NYC is a screener for 35 programs and benefits application portals for five programs in New York City. It was spearheaded by the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services and is managed by HHS-Connect, an initiative administratively located within the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. HHS-Connect spearheads technology solutions for integration among city human service agencies. ACCESS NYC is available to the public for self-service use in seven languages. The screener consists of two levels. Users complete an initial screen that provides general information about the kinds of programs that might be available for their households. They then have the option to provide more detailed information that will help determine their potential eligibility for specific programs. At any time, users may submit online applications for school meals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid recertifications, and the state Senior Citizen and Disability Rent Increase Exemption.

Benefits CalWIN. Benefits CalWIN is an online tool that enables screening, online application submission, and online program recertifications for SNAP, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)[1] in a consortium of 18 counties (including San Francisco) in California. The Benefits CalWIN website is publicly available through https://www.benefitscalwin.org or the state and county websites, and offers language options in English, Spanish, and Chinese. The tool and its name are linked to the California Welfare Information Network (CalWIN), the consortium’s eligibility determination, benefit calculation, enrollment, and case management system. Users may create an account that saves screening data and provides access to all other features on the site, including the benefit application. Information from the screener does not prepopulate the application, and there is no requirement to screen before applying. Users may choose the programs for which they want to apply; the final page of the application requires an electronic signature and lists the required verification documents to upload or send to the office. Scanned images may be attached to the application. After submission, clients receive a printable final summary with a tracking number that they can use as a reference if they call to track the progress of their application. As of April 2011, clients may also recertify and submit quarterly reports online for SNAP through Benefits CalWIN.

Benefits Enrollment Network (BEN). Single Stop USA is a national nonprofit organization that funds approximately 80 community-based organizations (CBOs) and community college sites in New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, and New Mexico to implement and operate its model of service, which includes four components: benefits screening and application assistance, tax preparation, legal counseling, and financial counseling. For the screening and application assistance, Single Stop counselors use BEN, an online tool, on behalf of clients to determine their potential eligibility for a range of federal, state, and local benefits and tax credits. In each site, BEN includes core federal programs such as SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), child care assistance, TANF,Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and federal tax credits. The number and types of programs included in the tool vary at each site, however; in some sites, the tool includes only the core programs, while others include more than 40 programs. BEN can use data entered for the screening to prepopulate benefit applications that clients can submit on their own. While BEN is capable of allowing electronic application submission, this feature was not available in any operational sites at the time of the case studies. BEN data do not feed into any federal or state agency portal, so data must be re-entered into other online application tools if clients want to apply online for benefits. Single Stop counselors can assist clients through this process.

Delaware Application for Social Services and Internet Screening Tool (ASSIST). Delaware ASSIST was created by the Division of Social Services (DSS), housed within the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. DSS is responsible for administering and determining initial and ongoing eligibility for TANF, SNAP, most Medicaid programs, General Assistance, and child care assistance. ASSIST is a self-service tool that helps users determine potential eligibility and enables them to complete and electronically submit applications with electronic signatures for these programs. Online application data are automatically downloaded into the state mainframe eligibility system. ASSIST is based on Pennsylvania’s online screener and application tool, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services (COMPASS).

EarnBenefits®. EarnBenefits was developed and is operated by the national nonprofit organization Structured Employment Economic Development Corporation (Seedco). The initiative promotes work support through education about available benefits, facilitated access to benefits, and benefits management. Access to benefits is achieved through an online screener for a variety of federal, state, and city programs used by trained counselors on behalf of clients. While the tool is capable of allowing electronic application submission, this feature is not currently in use in any of the sites. Instead, online applications are prepopulated and printed for submission by the client, and counselors at CBOs and other local organizations implementing EarnBenefits guide clients through the application process. The number and types of benefit programs included in the tool vary by locality. At the time of data collection for the study, EarnBenefits was operational in select areas in New York, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. EarnBenefits is also preparing to launch in Illinois and Louisiana and, as of October 2011, will no longer be operational in Kentucky or Buffalo, New York. In New York City, where we focused our data collection, the tool includes almost 20 programs.

One-e-App. One-e-App is a self-service tool that allows users to screen and electronically submit applications for a range of benefit programs according to the locality in which it is implemented. Social Interest Solutions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making public benefits enrollment easier through technology, owns and operates One-e-App and tailors and licenses it to state agencies to implement. It is currently in use under different names in Arizona (Health-e-Arizona, or HEA), California (One-e-App), Indiana (Ind-e-App), and Maryland (Health-e-Link). HEA, which was the focus of our data collection, allows users statewide to screen and electronically submit a single combined application or individual applications for TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, CHIP, and the Medicare Savings Program. Individuals may also recertify for those programs through HEA.

The Benefit Bank (TBB). TBB is an online tool that can be used to help individuals and families screen for benefit eligibility and prepare and submit tax returns, benefit applications, and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for Pell grants. TBB exists in some form in Ohio, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. The number and types of programs included in the tool vary by locality. In Ohio, where the tool is called the Ohio Benefit Bank (OBB), it includes approximately 20 programs, the largest number among all states. In each state where TBB exists, online access to it is available through trained benefit counselors at community based organizations. Counselors use the computerized tool in conjunction with educational outreach to raise awareness of available tax credits and benefit programs. In some states (including Ohio, where we focused our data collection), the public may also access a self-service version of TBB. Where supported by the appropriate state or federal agency, applications may be filed electronically through TBB.

Utah Helps/myCase. The electronic Resource and Eligibility Product (eREP) is the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ rules-based eligibility determination system, which encompasses approximately 30 programs. The state Department of Technology Services runs eREP and the public-use online tools that allow customers to interact with eREP data. First, Utah Helps allows customers to screen for benefits and complete and submit online applications for 13 programs (data must later be rekeyed into eREP by a worker). MyCase allows customers to receive (but not submit) information about active cases; it is currently being enhanced to replace and improve the functionality of Utah Helps to allow customers to update cases online and automatically populate eREP with online data.

B. Case Study Information Collection

We collected information for the case studies primarily through on-site discussions with individuals and small groups. Key contacts within each site assisted us in identifying the appropriate individuals with whom we could discuss various aspects of each benefits access system. Discussions were held with administrators and staff (policy, program, and information technology) of federal, state, and local government agencies; software developers; training and technical assistance providers; and administrators and staff at nonprofit or for-profit partners involved in the development, operation, or use of the initiative. Discussions were guided by protocols tailored to each unique site and respondent type. The protocols were designed to be flexible enough to inspire free-flowing conversation but structured enough to capture similar information across sites in an average of 60 to 90 minutes. Protocols focused on the design, development, implementation, operations, funding and costs, outputs and outcomes, and sustainability and replicability of the web-based benefits access efforts.[2]

For web-based benefits access efforts that are operational in multiple sites, we selected one site to visit in person and supplemented the site visit data with telephone interviews in additional sites. Table I.1 identifies the sites in which we collected data. Findings presented in this report reflect implementation and operations of efforts in all of these sites at the time we collected the data in spring 2011.

Table I.1. Data Collection Sites for Case Studies
Effort In-Person Interviews Telephone Interviews
a In Arizona, One-e-App is called Health-e-Arizona (HEA).
b In Ohio, TBB is called the Ohio Benefit Bank (OBB).

ACCESS NYC

New York City, NY

--

Benefits CalWIN

San Francisco, CA

--

BEN

Las Cruces, NM

New York City, NY

Delaware ASSIST

State of DE

--

EarnBenefits

New York City, NY

Atlanta, GA; Memphis, TN

One-e-App

State of AZ a

State of CA

TBB

State of OH b

State of SC

Utah Helps/myCase

State of UT

--

II Barriers and Needs among Special Populations

The utility of web-based benefits access tools is contingent upon user access to and familiarity with the Internet. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) reports that, although Internet use has risen sharply in the United States in the last decade, disparities persist in computer and broadband access and usage (NTIA 2011). While data show that this "digital divide" is narrowing; lower levels of family income and education, as well as employment status, household type, and disability status, continue to negatively affect households’ likelihood of having broadband access. Caucasian households are also more likely to have broadband access than African American and Hispanic households (NTIA 2011).

Respondents to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Internet Use Supplement who did not have Internet access at home reported that cost was the main reason they were nonsubscribers (NTIA 2011). Furthermore, populations with low levels of literacy and digital literacy may experience greater difficulties in understanding web-based materials. NTIA reports that individuals who have some high school experience but no diploma and those with only elementary school experience have a 29.5 and 15.2 percent adoption rate, respectively, compared to individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree, who have an 84.2 percent adoption rate (NTIA 2011). The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reports that 11 million adults are not literate in English, with more than 4 million who could not take the test because of language barriers (NAAL 2003).

The "digital divide" may disproportionately affect certain segments of the population with low-income. For example, seniors with low-incomes are more likely to have lower levels of digital literacy. A national Kaiser Family Foundation survey of older Americans found that less than one-third of all seniors 65 and over have gone online, and less than half of all seniors have ever used a computer (Rideout et al., 2005). Additionally, rural populations are less likely than their urban counterparts to have broadband connections at home. In 2010, 60.2 percent of rural households compared to 70.3 percent of urban households reported having a broadband connection (NTIA 2011).

Various segments of the population eligible for benefits face other barriers to accessing and using web-based benefits access tools. Some barriers are related to individual characteristics, such as language, literacy, or effects of aging, while others are situational or structural, such as lack of stable housing or distance from the nearest library or benefit office that offers Internet connections. In this section, we describe some of the barriers and potential needs among these groups with respect to web-based benefits access tools.

A. Limited English Speakers and Noncitizens

Language barriers prevent many limited English speakers from accessing and understanding information available on web-based benefits access tools. Studies suggest that the complexity of benefit application rules and confusion about eligibility can negatively affect the up-take of benefits (Remler and Glied 2003). In a study by Stuber et al., 2000 applicants confused by eligibility rules were 1.8 times less likely to apply for Medicaid services. Printable online applications can be between 10 and 20 pages in length. Furthermore, technical language required to describe human service and health benefits is often difficult to understand and is above the third- to sixth-grade reading level that many sites strive to achieve. For limited English speakers, confusion about eligibility may be magnified by a lack of English proficiency and comprehension. Technical language, however, can be difficult to translate into some languages.

Limited English speakers and noncitizens also are often hesitant to seek benefits due to misperceptions about their eligibility and fears about deportation and public charge issues. Indeed, it is often difficult for noncitizens to determine whether they are, in fact, eligible for certain benefits due to rules and regulations regarding length of time spent in the U.S., and asylee, refugee, or trafficking victim status (Crosnoe et.al., 2012). Because rules vary across programs, web-based tools that promote access to multiple benefits might yield screening results that may not seem intuitive to users. In addition, noncitizens may associate some of the procedures involved in benefit application, including interviews and finger imaging, with procedures conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service[3] (Holcomb et al., 2003). A study by the Urban Institute reports that many noncitizens access benefit services in non-welfare settings, including hospital emergency departments and community health clinics, due, in part, to greater access to translation services and fewer fears of disclosing immigration status (Holcomb et al., 2003). Indeed, while only 17 percent of applications submitted through Benefits CalWIN overall are from non-English speakers, 46 percent of applications submitted through Benefits CalWIN with the help of a CBO are from non-English speakers.

Given these barriers and needs, limited English speakers and noncitizens might benefit from the following:

  • Translation of web-based tools and associated material into multiple languages
  • Culturally sensitive marketing and application materials that address the cultural as well as linguistic needs of specific populations
  • Use of images to pictorially describe difficult language related to eligibility
  • Targeted outreach and application assistance in non-welfare settings and through organizations trusted by the community
  • Education to dispel myths about eligibility and citizenship
  • Use of application procedures with an "opt-out" mechanism for non-applicant family members that makes it clear that only those who will be receiving the benefit are required to have their immigration status verified.

B. Homeless/Unstably Housed Individuals and Families

Homeless and unstably housed individuals face several barriers to accessing and using online benefits access tools, including lack of documentation, lack of a stable address, fragile support networks, and feelings of stigma and distrust (Kauff et al. 2009). For example, homeless and unstably housed individuals frequently move among shelters, the street, and friends’ and relatives’ homes without carrying the identification or other documentation required for the benefits application process. Because these individuals do not have a stable address, they often have no way of receiving correspondence regarding benefits. Furthermore, they may have limited support networks to rely on for help in connecting to benefit services. Families who are homeless or unstably housed face similar challenges.

The mental health and substance use problems that many in this group face may further compromise their ability to navigate the benefits application process. As many as 77 percent of adults who are homeless report a chronic health condition (Kauff et al. 2009), and on any given night in January 2010, 26.2 percent of all sheltered persons who were homeless had a severe mental illness, while 34 percent of all sheltered adults who were homeless had chronic substance use issues (Paquette 2010). The most common mental health disorder among the homeless population is substance abuse (Fazel et al. 2008). Indeed, a systematic review of the prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse among homeless populations reports that these populations are substantially more likely than the general population to have alcohol and drug dependence (Fazel et al. 2008). These problems limit physical and cognitive functioning and impair an individual’s ability to make decisions and keep appointments (van der Plas et al. 2009), both of which may be necessary to complete an online benefits application process. In addition, approximately 23 percent of individuals who are homeless have been incarcerated (Kushel et al. 2005), which often contributes to the populations’ general distrust of other types of agencies, including health and social service agencies (Nichols and Cazares 2011).

Recognizing these challenges, one of the objectives in "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategic plan to address homelessness, is to improve access to mainstream programs and services to reduce people’s financial vulnerability to homelessness. The federal government is supporting this objective by documenting, disseminating, and promoting the use of best practices in expediting access to income and work supports, including online consolidated application processing and electronic submission.

Additionally, given their barriers and needs, homeless/unstably housed individuals might benefit from the following:

  • Intensive outreach strategies focused on engagement and allaying distrust of case or social workers
  • Screening and application assistance through an authorized representative who can receive program communication on the applicant’s behalf
  • Electronic verification of application information for those who lack physical documentation of identity, income, assets, expenses, and other program eligibility parameters
  • Assistance obtaining an email address for sending and receiving electronic communication

C. Reentering Prisoners

Research suggests that many reentering prisoners are released with only enough money to support them for a few days (Richards and Jones 1997) and are often likely to become homeless (Hals 2005). Reentering prisoners also face barriers similar to those among the homeless population, including mental health and substance abuse problems, fragile support networks, and lack of stable housing. Approximately 16 percent report problems with mental illness, and up to 75 percent report having a history of substance abuse (Roman and Travis 2004; Coley and Barton 2006). Reentering prisoner populations also have generally low levels of education. One study reports that the median level of educational attainment for reentering prisoners is 11th grade (Urban Institute LIWF Fact Sheet 2008), while others estimate that 41 percent of incarcerated adults have less than a high school education (Coley and Barton 2006).

Prisoners are not eligible to receive most public benefits during the time they are incarcerated (see http://www.prisonlaw.com/pdfs/BenefitsLetter,Aug2011.pdf for examples of benefits available to prisoners and parolees in one state). However, although there are exceptions, once paroled or discharged, they are usually eligible for benefits based on the eligibility criteria that apply to the general population.[4]

Prisoners can prepare program applications during incarceration to submit upon their release. Access to web-based applications, however, poses a problem for prisoners as well as their case managers. Access to computers, and especially web-based applications, often is limited or not available within correctional institutions. Thus, authorized individuals may need to download paper applications and submit them by mail on prisoners’ behalf or enter information online from paper forms prisoners complete. This labor-intensive process reduces the efficiencies associated with web-based applications. Additionally, although they may become eligible for programs and benefits once paroled or discharged, applications that prisoners submit during incarceration might be denied even if their release is imminent because of state-specific rules and requirements. Prisoners face the same problems of limited access to web-based screening tools as for web-based applications.

When there are opportunities to access online screening tools, these efforts could be an important part of discharge planning. Even without entering data online, a process through which case managers or discharge planners review with prisoners the screener questions and the kinds of information required for applications could substantially improve access. Failure to leverage web-based screening and application tools and provide assistance to prisoners in their use may result in missed opportunities for linking individuals to critical benefits that could help this vulnerable population reenter the workforce and limit recidivism and homelessness.[5] Providing web-based access to eligibility screening and application assistance through halfway houses and work release programs or immediately upon release, as part of probation and parole activities, might also help reentering prisoners meet their immediate and long-term needs. This is being explored in some states.

Given these barriers and needs, reentering prisoners might benefit from the following:

  • Discharge planning and correctional supervision that entails benefit screening and assistance in preparing web-based applications for submission on the date of release or shortly thereafter
  • Discharge planning that entails communication with program agencies to determine whether online applications may be submitted and placed in pending status until the date of release
  • Education prior to release and during correctional supervision regarding program eligibility criteria for prisoners and parolees

D. Rural Populations

Rural populations experience barriers to accessing benefit services due to limited availability of computers and broadband service and distance to locations that provide these services. Data from NTIA show that rural residents are less likely than urban residents to adopt broadband Internet, even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors (NTIA 2010). Eligible rural populations without broadband access are unable to enroll in benefit programs from home and may also struggle to access locations that provide Internet access due to geographic barriers. Indeed, lack of public transportation in many rural areas limits residents from traveling to locations where computers and Internet services are available, or to CBO or welfare offices that can assist individuals in the application process. Only 32 percent of all rural counties have full access to public transportation services, 28 percent have limited access, and 40 percent have no public transit options at all (Stommes and Brown 2005). The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service rural development economist Dennis M. Brown and USDA sociologist Eileen S. Stommes state that, "for low-income rural residents, long commutes and lack of transportation are barriers to working. Limited transportation options also isolate the rural poor from government services and programs designed to lift them out of poverty" (Brown and Stommes 2004).

Given these barriers and needs, rural populations might benefit from the following:

  • Mobile outreach and application assistance units (equipped with laptop computers, wireless service, scanner/printer/fax machines, and other necessary technology) that are able to visit low-income rural communities and provide on-site benefit application service assistance
  • Access to marketing and education materials that includes dates when mobile outreach vans will visit the area

E. Low-Income Students

Studies show that students from families with low-income are less likely than students from families with higher-income to complete postsecondary education (Purnell et al. 2004; Muraskin et al. 2004). Students from families with low-incomes often lack the financial resources necessary to complete postsecondary education, and are often unable to rely on their families for any financial assistance or support. As a result, those who do enroll often leave their degree program to earn an income and support themselves and their families (Muraskin et al. 2004). Furthermore, students from families with low-incomes may receive lower-quality K-12 education because they are more likely to attend K-12 schools with fewer resources (Muraskin et al. 2004). In turn, lower-quality K-12 education can limit students’ potential for merit-based financial scholarship or aid (Muraskin et al. 2004).

Recent increases in the overall level of funding available for student financial assistance, in particular the availability of Pell grants for low-income students, increases the saliency of developing better mechanisms to help students take advantage of federal resources.[6] While the number of students applying for and receiving Pell grants has substantially increased since 2007, there remains a significant proportion of potentially eligible students who have not applied for federal aid or whose federal aid package does not include a Pell grant (Mahan, 2011). Earlier research indicates thatstudents often do not take advantage of benefits because of lack of information or because they think their families make too much money to qualify (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). They may also lack strong support systems or mentor figures who can assist and encourage them in seeking services that may help them afford their education. Furthermore, students that are low-income who are receiving financial aid are often still unable to cover costs of living and studying (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). In a study of low-income undergraduate students enrolled in full-time and full-year degree programs, 87 percent experienced unmet need (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). A more recent report (Mahan, 2011) indicates that for low-income students, financial aid, including loans, on average covers about 60 percent of the cost of attending[7]. Students who are low-income and who are parents may be in particular need of child care assistance so that they can attend classes regularly, as well as other benefits that provide income support.

Research suggests that students gather information about financial aid programs through various techniques, such as online searching, informal conversations, and structured programming (Waters 2009), but many need assistance in completing the application because they have questions throughout the process (De la Rosa and Tierney 2007). Whether web-based tools that promote access to other benefits are useful to low-income students may then depend on the extent to which assistance is offered in their use.

Given these barriers and needs, low-income students may benefit from the following:

  • Web-based benefits access tools prominently featured on computers in libraries and other public spaces on campus
  • Application assistance accessible on site at postsecondary institutions through trained academic and financial aid advisors, faculty, and other staff
  • Marketing and education campaigns focusing on eligibility criteria and benefit services available to students

F. Veterans

Veterans returning home from combat may be eligible for a broad range of public benefits, but the transition from service member to veteran can be emotionally and psychologically challenging for some. Veterans returning from war may have debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, making it difficult to navigate the complex web of public benefits, especially disability benefits. Furthermore, every veteran has an individual experience of the transition to civilian life, during which time it may be difficult for veterans and their families to seek the services they need. For example, some veterans may not be ready to schedule appointments with benefit service application assistants while they are still working to return to their daily routines. Veterans at this stage in their reentry may also find it difficult to read and digest large amounts of materials related to benefit services or make decisions about what benefits they would like to receive. Some returning veterans may also lack a sound support network to help engage them in the benefits application process (Overton et al. 2010).

Veterans’ families could also be eligible for a vast array or programs but might not be aware of them. Many veterans, especially those in the National Guard, earn more while in the military than they can earn in civilian employment, leaving their families especially vulnerable. Even when veterans and their families are aware of and ready to access benefits, tools may not exist to help them do so. Many programs specific to the needs of veterans and their families are not incorporated into existing web-based benefits access tools. Of the 86 web-based benefits access efforts identified in the scan completed under this contract, only 6 specifically included any veterans benefit programs; only one of the case study efforts (ACCESS NYC) included any veterans benefits, but access through the online tool was limited to a city and state of New York Individual Property Tax Exemption for veterans.

In addition, returning and older veterans face barriers to engaging in benefit services similar to those of many of the other populations discussed in this paper, including lack of stable housing, geographic barriers, issues related to stigma, and mental health disorders and substance abuse problems. Veterans with mental illness and substance abuse disorders made up 15.4 percent of all veterans using the Veterans Health Administration in 2007 (Watkins et al 2011). Further, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine on mental health disorders and barriers to care for soldiers who served early in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts reported that only a small percentage of soldiers reporting mental health disorders had received mental health care services (Hoge et al. 2004).

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated that in 2009, 131,000 veterans were homeless on any given night (Khadduri et al., 2010), and that as many as 260,000 veterans experienced homelessness over the course of that year. Indeed, in 2010, 13 percent of all adults living in shelters were veterans and 16 percent of homeless adults (i.e., persons living on the street, in transitional housing or shelters) were veterans (Khadduri et al. 2010). Veterans living in rural areas frequently experience geographic barriers to services (Schooley et al. 2010). A study of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan veteran facilities used by homeless veterans showed that, overall, nonmetropolitan homeless veterans access care less than their metropolitan counterparts (Gordon et al. 2010). The VA, a member of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), has developed a five-year plan to expand existing services available to veterans, develop new initiatives to keep veterans from entering homelessness, and treat those currently homeless (Dougherty and Smits 2009). The five-year plan focuses on developing services in six strategic areas, including outreach and education, treatment, prevention, housing and supportive services, income and employment benefits, and community partnerships. This initiative, included in "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," aims to connect veterans with services at any point of contact they make with service agencies, be it a regional office or community organization.

Given these barriers and needs, veterans and their families might benefit from the following: