While stigma and even racism may stop people initially applying for benefits, bureaucracy, technical issues, difficulty logging in, and lack of awareness are some of the reasons people don’t use benefit screening tools. We have also added three benefits screening tools to the previously created spreadsheet here, and included the details below.
Benefit Screening Tools
Most benefits screening tools seem to cover multiple, but not all states. Other tools are tailored for one state only, and cover the basics (SNAP, cash assistance, and healthcare access). No tools include all 80 social services that exist in the country. Benefits.gov covers all federal benefits, and it has a related screening tool, called BEST, which covers social security only. There are also benefits tools based on categories. For example, tools for finding benefits for people over 55 (called BenefitsCheckUp) or for informing people with disabilities. There are also tools in other languages. For example, BuscaBeneficios.org is a screening tool “that connects Latinx older adults to billions of dollars in federal, state, local, and private benefits to pay for daily expenses.”
1. Benefits Kitchen
- Note: On both social media, and in terms of press releases, Benefits Kitchen has been inactive since 2018. Their Android app also isn’t available, so it is unclear how active this company is today.
- Description: Benefits Kitchen is a phone and web app that people can use to find out about the benefits they are eligible for. The company also aims to help with caseworker expertise. Apart from the benefit screener, the company provides an API that other organizations can incorporate into their websites, a lightweight CRM system and reporting tools for caseworkers, and data sets and integrations. The benefits tool takes about 10 minutes to use and is anonymous.
- Advantage: This service is concerned that there are a lot of benefits that are going unclaimed. They claim to reinvest a majority of their profits in maintaining the organization’s sustainability so that as many Americans as possible can claim the benefits they deserve, need, or have earned.
- Reach: Covers 18 federal, state, and local benefits for eight states (AZ, CA, LA, NJ, NY, TX, VA). Its API has national coverage, and its Basic Income Needs Generator covers CA, FL, NY, PA and TX.
- Types of benefits covered: Benefits Kitchen screens for:
- ACA/Obamacare eligibility (for adults and children),
- Medicaid eligibility and copay amounts (for adults and children),
- Food Stamps eligibility and dollar amounts,
- WIC eligibility and dollar amounts,
- HeadStart eligibility,
- School meals eligibility,
- Subsidized childcare eligibility and copay amounts,
- Utility assistance eligibility and dollar amounts,
- Public assistance eligibility and dollar amounts,
- State and federal tax liability,
- Federal, state, and local tax credits (CCTC, CTC, EITC) eligibility and tax credit amounts.
- Description: This resource helps people find federal benefits, only. The tool is accessible via a website form that takes about 5 minutes to complete initially, after which, the website provides a number of benefits that the person may be eligible for. They are then asked for more information. The results list the benefits the user is eligible for, and provide links to information about each of the benefits and how to apply for them. Users can also select a category, for example refugee services, so they can concentrate on finding resources in that area. BEST is a similar questionnaire, but with a focus only on social security.
- Advantage: All federal benefits in one place. Beneficiaries include U.S. citizens, businesses, and federal and state government entities.
- Reach: National.
- Types of benefits covered: Questionnaire eligibility criteria cover more than 1,000 Federally-funded benefit and assistance programs. Federal benefits in the following categories: Agriculture and the environment, Indigenous Americans, disaster relief, family and children services, education and training, employment, financial assistance, food and nutrition, grants, healthcare, housing and public utilities, immigration and refugee assistance, loans, military, social security and retirement, and volunteer opportunities.
- Number of users: 1.3 million website visits per month.
- Description: A free service of the National Council on Aging, this screening tool is an online web form that starts out by asking for a ZIP code. The BenefitsCheckUp team “monitors the benefits landscape for updates and changes to policies and programs.”
- Advantage: The tool provides initial findings and also a full report on benefits that users are eligible for.
- Reach: National, state, and private benefits.
- Types of benefits covered: Benefits for seniors – screens for more than 2,500 public and private programs available to older adults. Programs covered fall under 12 key categories: medication, healthcare, income assistance, food, housing and utilities, tax relief, veterans, employment, transport, education, discount, and other assistance.
- Number of users: 8,970,018 total (all time)-
Access Issues and Preferences
Key obstacles that we found that people faced when trying to determine the benefits they are eligible for, included complexity, a lack of awareness, and a lack of technical knowledge.
1. Complex rules
- The number of benefits available is high, and their rules are complex, which can be overwhelming for poor and busy or overworked individuals and families. Apps and benefit screen services help to simplify the rules and give people the ability to plan ahead.
- There are 80 social services available in the US, aimed at a total of 50 million Americans. In addition, there are thousands of other benefits, and each state structures its granting of federal benefits differently.
- The US’s health insurance system, including Medicare and Medicaid, is one of the most complex in the world. “US adults were significantly more likely than their counterparts in other countries to forgo care because of cost, to have difficulty paying for care even when insured, and to encounter time-consuming insurance complexity. “
- People are also unaware of the resources they are eligible for, and more importantly, they are unaware of how to start to go about getting help.
- While people are aware that social security exists, for example, there are many false beliefs about what people are and aren’t entitled to. A survey of Americans aged 55 to 75 found that 34% didn’t know that delaying retirement would lead to a higher rate of benefits paid out after they stopped working. Some 47% incorrectly thought that annual cost-of-living increases were guaranteed, and 36% thought, incorrectly, that “full Social Security benefits automatically start at one’s 65th birthday.”
- A more recent survey shows that 18% of Americans aged 55 to 65 lack awareness of annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).
3. Technical Knowledge and Access
- Some people who are less comfortable with technology may need help using or accessing the apps. That’s why Benefits Kitchen is (in 2017) working with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams so that people can get assistance in the area’s Constituent Assistance Center (CAC), community board offices, child care centers, schools, senior centers, and social service agencies.
- Reading reviews of Benefits.gov, it seems (based on subjectively judging the reviews) that many people who struggle to access services and to use the tool have literacy issues, language issues, and perhaps mental health issues. One woman, for example, was a caregiver for 10 years, and believes she is facing homelessness. She comments that she needs help, “SOMEONE PLEASE help us i receive a fixed income my number is 707 708 6611,” but seems to struggle with accessing the form and relating her particular situation to the questions asked.
- Only 1 in 3 of the state online applications are mobile responsive. A majority of people who rely on government assistance access it via mobile. Many of them use their phone as their computer, or don’t have access to a computer. Some 20% of households don’t have broadband Internet at home, but do use smartphones. However, websites need to be responsive (usable on a phone) rather than providing tools that people can download to their phone, as few people are willing to download a tool to use just once.
- Login is an obstacle for some clients. Some struggle to deal with the requirements, some don’t have an email address that they can use to verify the login.
4. Complaints and Preferences
- People providing reviews of Benefits.gov, for example, were generally happy with the information available and see it as a very valuable tool. Any complaints were more about what services are actually provided and who qualifies for them (for example one person complained about job access for elderly people who can’t retire). A few people complained about technical issues with the site (for example, the list of benefits disappearing after clicking on one) or they seemed to be confused about the purpose of the site.
- A study found that one screening tool, called Do I Qualify, for Pennsylvania public benefits, was incorrectly telling people they weren’t eligible for benefits, when they in fact were. The tool screens for eligibility for Medicaid, SNAP, cash assistance, free or reduced-price school meals for children, and Child Care Works. Analysts said this was one problem with automated government processes – only extensively testing thousands of scenarios reveals if they are working properly or not, and too frequently states don’t do the necessary auditing.
Services in Each State
- Many states have their own benefit screening services. Alaska provides a WIC screening tool. New Jersey has a screening tool to help residents find out what benefits they can apply for, particularly in terms of food assistance (SNAP), cash assistance (WFNJ/TANF or WFNJ/GA), and health Insurance (NJ FamilyCare/Medicaid). Residents can also apply for these services from the same page (and that takes longer – around 45 minutes – compared to the 10 minutes for the initial assessment).
- Likewise, Indiana has a similar portal where residences can be screened for and apply for SNAP, cash assistance, and health coverage. California, on the other hand, has various programs like CalFresh, and TANF, but the state doesn’t seem to have a public benefits screening tool that encompasses all these.
- Some 44 states have some kind of combined benefits application, but no states combine all five of the main applications into one application. Colorado, for example, has a combined online application for Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, and LIHEAP, while Idaho only has an online application for Medicaid. This impacts benefits screening tools, because once people know what they can apply for, they then may have to apply for it in person (or over the phone).
- Medicaid has online applications in all 50 states, but WIC, for example, has online applications in just seven states.
Obstacles People Face to Accessing the Benefits They Are Entitled to
- Some 13 million people living below the poverty line in the US don’t access social services. According to one recent study, African Americans were most likely to apply, followed by poor whites, and with poor Hispanics and Asians least likely to receive aid, at 66% and 67% respectively. Low income white families, for example, often have other resources (homes, savings) and networks to fall back on in times of need. Politicians and the media also sometimes talk about social services in a racist way, suggesting that public assistance means people are lazy. But often when these conservative politicians talk about public assistance recipients, it is code for Black people.
- Public polls suggest Black and white Americans see public assistance differently. Some 57% of whites say it’s more common for irresponsible people to get help they don’t deserve; 38% said it’s more common for needy people to go without benefits. However, 45% of Black people said it’s more common for irresponsible people to get help they don’t deserve; 51% said it’s more common for people in need to go without government assistance.
- Millions of low-income Californians aren’t accessing the food stamps they are entitled to. Kim McCoy Wade, chief of the CalFresh branch of the state’s Department of Social Services says this is likely due to historically bad customer service (that is, people remember a bad experience and don’t try again), and “bulky bureaucracy.” Also, in California, the program is administered at a county level, and the decentralization means that it takes longer. Wyoming is the worst state for participation in the program, with 41% of people who are eligible, not receiving stamps.
- In addition, there is a stigma around food stamps, and documented migrants also worry about how applying could impact their chances of becoming citizens. Lack of transportation, long lines at county offices and lack of flexibility for appointment times can also be factors behind low participation,