Why don't government social services programs better serve families struggling through crises like the COVID-19 pandemic? One reason is that these systems are designed for compliance over access. Many of those who are in need and qualify are deterred by high administrative burdens, including excessive steps and paperwork.

At a time of deep economic distress, eligibility processes can either facilitate or impede access to key supports like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment insurance and child-care subsidies. The need for program redesign is urgent, and simplifying eligibility determination is a good place to start. Drawing on insights from behavioral science, state and local agencies that administer these programs can proactively implement three strategies to better support families:

1. Proactive notification: "You might be eligible — click here to start your application."

Today, many individuals are new to social safety net programs and may not understand what they're eligible for. Telling people up front that they qualify for certain benefits focuses them on applying rather than spending time sorting through eligibility criteria.

Consider a child support agency in Ohio that partnered with MDRC's Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS). Once parents expressed interest in modifying their child support payments, Cuyahoga County used existing administrative data to identify those who could skip an eligibility form. The county saw a 12 percentage point increase in parents completing the modification process compared to the standard process, saving time and resources for both parents and staff. Parents finished the process six weeks faster. Staff saved hours of time on mailing and reviewing each eligibility form.

Similarly, maintaining benefits can be complex. Consider an experiment that ideas42 ran with the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance to help people retain their SNAP benefits, formerly known as "food stamps," which are so essential to millions of American families' nutritional security. Many individuals struggle to recertify their eligibility and fall off the program, only to reapply soon after. To prevent this, ideas42 simply included a copy of the recertification form with a reminder letter. This single extra copy increased submissions by 1.7 percentage points and decreased lateness by 1.3 points.

2. Proactive eligibility: "You are eligible — click here to get your benefit."

In this approach, the agency starts a process for a client, who must respond to claim the benefit. As an example from another CABS study, 10 Ohio community colleges sent emails and letters highlighting potential summer students' eligibility for federal and state grants and informing them of the amounts available to them. To receive the funding, students simply had to enroll in summer courses. Proactively sharing the information — as opposed to waiting for students to inquire about summer funding options — improved grant take-up and course registration.

Similarly, ideas42 recently advised a public agency and a college system on encouraging benefits uptake. Using financial-aid status, the college informed students who were likely able to access benefits. The communication embedded easy-to-follow instructions on completing an application plus rules of thumb to help students understand additional criteria. Trusted institutions like schools should always proactively direct people to helpful resources.

3. Proactive benefit: "You are going to get the benefit — no further action needed."

This approach requires government agencies to use available data to proactively award benefits to qualified individuals, eliminating unnecessary forms and hassles. The federal CARES Act stimulus payment and automatic distribution of pandemic food assistance are recent examples proving that the federal government can do this.

Thinking ahead, a "no wrong door" policy could provide an immense opportunity by allowing people to automatically gain access to an array of programs if they've been found eligible for one of them. Today, there are some opportunities to increase access through such adjunctive eligibility, but the ability to share data is limited and eligibility guidelines are not harmonized.

COVID-19 has demonstrated once again that our public benefits systems are rife with administrative burden, preventing access to important services. However, the crisis gives government agencies at every level an opportunity to repair some of the resulting inequities. Simply following the 2015 White House executive order mandating agencies to remove administrative burdens, shorten wait times and simplify forms would be an easy starting point. Given the growing list of successes, it's easier than ever for agencies to use behavioral design to better serve the growing number of people in need.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.