Want welfare? There isn’t an app for that.

January 14, 2013

Low participation rates are a chronic problem with American safety net programs. Government figures suggest that SNAP, or food stamps, reached only 75 percent of eligible people in 2010, while researchers have found that 15 percent of eligible children and almost 40 percent of eligible adults don't get Medicaid.

One easy way for states to boost participation rates is to make applications available online. That way, poor families with computers or access to public computers, such as those in libraries, can apply for benefits in private, without the stigma of having to go to a  state agency office and apply in person. Even better, online systems can be designed to allow families to see if they're eligible and to check on the status of their application for benefits and renew them more easily.

But because most welfare programs are administered at least partially at the state level, there's huge variation in how much one can do online. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has put out a report tracking which states allow online applications and other tools to benefit claimants. The vast majority of states allow online applications for at least some programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, TANF (temporary aid) or child-care funding. But very few allow online applications for all of such benefits:

Eight states — Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, and North Carolina — and Washington, D.C., don't offer online applications for any programs. Eighteen states allow applications for SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, child care and, where applicable*, CHIP (children's health insurance). The other 24 states, including California, Texas and New York, are somewhere in the middle. New York, for instance, offers online applications only for SNAP, while California and Texas allow them for everything but child care assistance.

The picture is even bleaker when you look at other tools for eligible beneficiaries. Only 18 states have online benefit calculators to check eligibility for all programs, while another six have calculators for everything but child care. Less than half the states allow beneficiaries to check their application status online, and only 21 allow them to update their personal information — a change in phone number or address, for example — online.

The situation is due to improve next year, when health care exchanges will start offering online Medicaid enrollment to all states. But it's still much harder than it needs to be for the nation's neediest to get basic government assistance.

* Some states roll CHIP in with Medicaid, so their online Medicaid application doubles as a CHIP application.

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Neil Irwin | January 14, 2013