Urban Wire Five recent improvements to help families access work support benefits
Julia B. Isaacs, Heather Hahn
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Millions of working parents qualify for food, medical, and child care assistance that can help them support their families. Accessing these supports, however, can be difficult or confusing. What can state and local social service agencies do to improve work support benefits delivery?   

Below, we highlight what six states accomplished under the Work Support Strategies initiative, a foundation-funded effort to streamline state benefit delivery systems so low-income families can get and keep the full package of work supports for which they are eligible. After the five years of the initiative, states delivered benefits faster; reduced wait times, paperwork, and unnecessary gaps in service; and increased the number of eligible families who received multiple benefits.


1. Helping families get benefits faster

Four states cut the average number of days needed to process applications and get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits into the hands of clients faster. The average processing time for a SNAP application dropped from 2.4 to 1.6 days in Idaho, from 15.7 to 12.5 days in Illinois, from 10.2 to 5.3 days in Rhode Island, and from 21.0 to 17.3 days in South Carolina.SNAP Processing

2. Getting families their benefits the same day they apply  

Some states reorganized their work processes and emphasized processing applications the same day they were received.

In Colorado, eight of the state’s largest counties received intensive support from a third-party vendor to redesign their business processes. The remaining 56 counties had varying but lower levels of business process redesign. Same-day service for SNAP benefits doubled in business process redesign–intensive counties from 13 to 26 percent between February and September 2014. In contrast, the monthly average for same-day service in all other Colorado counties increased from 8 to 12 percent during this period.

Other states saw dramatic increases in same-day service: rates tripled in Rhode Island and improved substantially in Illinois. Idaho, a state that already provided same-day service to 70 percent of its SNAP clients, reported marginal increases.SNAP Colorado

3. Reducing wait times and paperwork

State social service agencies changed the flow of clients through their lobbies and changed how they manage and process the flow of work behind the scenes.

  • Lobbies were less crowded and client wait times were shorter. Overflowing lobbies in Rhode Island’s two largest offices caused staff to close the lobby doors two to six times a month before changing their work processes, but not once since then.
  • Shifting from paper files to electronic documents saved time for staff.WSS before and after

A pair of photographs of an Illinois file room before and after the state moved to electronic records suggests the time (and paperwork) that could get lost under old systems. Photos by Alicia Huguelet and Heather Hahn.

4. Reducing unnecessary gaps in service

Improving access to work supports required states to focus on retaining recipients and reducing “churn.” Breakdowns in administrative procedures when families renew their benefits often cause families to lose those benefits, only to subsequently reapply and qualify. Churn is costly to families who lose benefits and to agencies that have to process additional applications.

To reduce churn, some states used electronic data already on file to automatically renew benefits, so no client action is necessary for renewal, as strongly encouraged by the Affordable Care Act.

In Idaho, the number of Medicaid renewals that closed for procedural reasons dropped dramatically after implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the use of electronic data, including SNAP records, to automatically renew eligibility for Medicaid. There were so few procedural closures in 2014–15 that the churn rate dropped to near zero.Idaho churn

5. Helping families get all the benefits they need.

Families seeking one type of assistance—food, health care, or child care—for an urgent need often need other assistance to maintain stability. Four states increased the number of eligible families who received both SNAP and Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits.

Joint participation rates for people under age 65 rose from 73 to 87 percent in Colorado, from 70 to 78 percent in Illinois, from 73 to 81 percent in South Carolina, and from 93 to 96 percent in Idaho. While South Carolina’s increase was concentrated among children, Idaho saw a substantial increase among nonelderly adults.

Although North Carolina had a slight decrease in joint participation among nonelderly people, the progress made in the four other states shows that improving access to the combined set of SNAP and Medicaid benefits is possible.

SNAP and Medicaid CHIP Joint Participation Rates for People Under Age 65

Although we cannot attribute all the improvements shown here to the states’ activities under the Work Support Strategies initiative, these results demonstrate that large-scale change is possible in these critical work support systems.


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Research Areas Families
Tags Families with low incomes Welfare and safety net programs Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Hunger and food assistance
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population