The Academy’s Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships (the Center) recently looked at 12 states’ consumer front-end experiences for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) application processes. The states included were Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Wyoming, Delaware, New York, Maryland, Texas, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Although not a representative sample, the selection includes a mix of geographic, demographic, and economic characteristics.
The Center found that the SNAP application processes were relatively uniform and user-friendly, but the LIHEAP application processes varied and, in many cases, were not user-friendly. Below are some observations about the similarities and differences between the states’ SNAP and LIHEAP programs, followed by examples of innovative practices.
For SNAP, all 12 states featured a consolidated application process, clearly outlined application steps, and included prompts for required documentation. Other than Wyoming, every state provided an option to apply online. Delaware and Maine were the only states that did not offer a non-English application. In addition, some states offer an online screening tool for multiple programs, which allows applicants to see all the benefits they qualify for at once. Only Maryland allows applicants to jointly apply for SNAP and LIHEAP (among other programs). Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Maryland provide clear timelines on benefits reviews, while the other states do not.
The LIHEAP program allows state and local decision making to govern the program structure. Although individuals only have to navigate a single process, the variation could complicate centralized efforts to help people access the program or confuse individuals who move to another jurisdiction. Local agencies administer the LIHEAP program and set up their own application processes in most states. Some states provide information on eligibility, filing requirements, and review times. Other states point users to the local administering agencies. Massachusetts has a search page that identifies all social service providers by locality, but in some cases, the returned information includes only the name of the agency and a telephone number rather than a direct link to the LIHEAP program or an online application. Marylanders can apply online through a state government portal, even though the program is administered locally. Rhode Island lists eligibility criteria online, but then directs applicants to a non-searchable list of Community Action Agencies that administer the program. Kentucky provides general information about the program and the documents required to apply without any information on the application process. Residents can find the Community Action Agency in their area by calling a toll-free telephone number.
Several of the states reviewed use promising practices. For instance, the Rhode Island and Delaware portals determine eligibility for all the social services they offer and auto-populate applicant information into multiple programs simultaneously, cutting down on repetitive data entry for the customer. Kentucky temporarily removed the interview requirement for the complete SNAP application and the online profile creation requirement for the short SNAP application to help expedite service delivery during COVID. Texas and Wyoming use smartphone apps that enable applicants to upload pictures of their documents and manage benefits.
Code for America’s (CfA) work on social service delivery is taking innovation a step further. The nonprofit recently launched a new, multi-year initiative to transform America’s social safety net to help advance the equitable delivery of government services. CfA plans to help reduce barriers to receiving social by fostering direct engagement and partnerships with government agencies and community organizations to address their unique needs with modern solutions. In addition, CfA plans to expand the capacity of its research and policy implementation department to help share technology tools and best practices to improve social benefit delivery. To learn more about CfA’s initiative, representatives from interested state governments and community organizations can sign up to receive additional information as it becomes available.