No one should go hungry because of problems with paperwork.
Unfortunately, bureaucratic hurdles and red tape too often stop people from getting the benefits they are due, and far too many Americans today face challenges accessing food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Also called food stamps, SNAP not only helps keep food on the table, it supports local economies.
Governments should deliver services in a way that is equitable, accessible, and meets people where they are. As part of Code for America’s work designing SNAP application portals, we’ve heard directly from people applying for benefits about some of the common barriers they face:
“They ask questions you can’t answer. There's just some things on there that it's hard to understand what they want. And if you don't answer it, it's incomplete.”
“Sometimes they send me mail, and I don't get what they're sending me sometimes or what they're asking for…I call and then they don't answer.”
“I was told that they couldn’t open [any of the files I uploaded] but no one told me until I went in person to the office.”
“Every six months, I basically start over.”
But our work has also shown that it’s possible to administer SNAP in a human-centered way, providing clear, equitable and respectful ways to apply for help.
Now, as Congress considers changes to SNAP administration in the 2023 farm bill, legislators have an opportunity to modernize the program nationwide to deliver benefits more efficiently to people who need them, in two concrete ways:
First, Congress should incentivize technology investments and usability standards to bring SNAP applications into the digital age, making access simple for people facing hunger.
Second, Congress should create clear measurements of how effectively states provide benefits to people who need them in order to give policymakers consistent, reliable data on how well or poorly SNAP meets its basic goal of getting help to people who lack resources for an adequate diet.
Make access simple
Our work has shown that it’s possible to create a simple, comprehensive, multi-lingual SNAP application that people can complete in 10 minutes on their mobile phones—and to deploy it at scale.
What’s more, there are already legal standards for user-centered, mobile friendly digital services for many federally-administered programs. Congress should extend similar standards to SNAP, ensuring that states prioritize improvements that keep people from falling through the administrative cracks.
SNAP supports a basic, essential need: access to food. With such high stakes, applications to the program should be simple, accessible and easy to understand.
More than one in four people with low incomes rely on smartphones, not desktop computers, to access the internet, but many states’ SNAP applications and websites still aren’t easy to use on a mobile phone. Other barriers such as confusing notices, opaque application processes, and limited accessibility in languages other than English also make it difficult for people to get help.
In 2019, when we surveyed online benefits applications nationwide, we found that a person’s access to an efficient, user-friendly SNAP application varied widely, depending on where they happened to live. Since then, we’ve seen—and helped—many states improve. But many others still have significant room to develop.
In this year’s farm bill, Congress has a critical opportunity to set usability standards that would streamline access to SNAP and remove barriers that keep eligible people from help affording an adequate diet.
Measure what matters
While paperwork problems have significant impacts on the lives of people struggling to make ends meet, the federal standards that measure SNAP’s performance largely fail to measure how effective states are at delivering SNAP benefits to those eligible to receive them. This means that we don’t have consistent, reliable data for tracking problems in SNAP access across states.
As a result, current state SNAP systems can’t always give administrators a clear picture of how effectively they provide access. And information that could shed light on administrative barriers is often stored very differently across systems making that information hard for states, advocates, and the federal government to access.
In some states, robust data infrastructure allows administrative barriers to be tracked in near real time. In others, information about administrative barriers, buried deep in narrative case notes, can be nearly impossible to access. As a result, policymakers, state leaders, and agency administrators lack critical information about where the system is breaking down for people who are trying to apply for or keep benefits.
The next farm bill is an important opportunity to set clear federal standards for measuring procedural hurdles, mandate robust data collection on administrative barriers at the state level, and provide incentives and assistance for states to translate measurement into action, consistent with the principles of human-centered government.
When your family is facing an empty cupboard, bureaucratic hurdles can be far more than an inconvenience. Congress should prioritize changes that modernize SNAP delivery, cutting red tape for people facing hunger.
Danny Mintz is associate director of safety net policy for Code for America.
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