Strategy overview

  • Ensuring eligible residents receive benefits: Local governments can help advance racial equity in their communities by removing barriers to accessing public benefits for residents who qualify. Successful efforts to increase enrollment in and receipt of public benefits programs include simplifying information about benefits and eligibility; reforming processes of applying to and receiving benefits to be more “human-centered;” and integrating benefits enrollment processes, where residents are able to apply for multiple benefits programs at the same time.

  • Simplifying information: Information about public benefits eligibility are notoriously difficult to understand, and applications are often burdensome to complete. Outreach material and eligibility information that is written in clear, easy-to-understand language–and applications that are not excessively complicated or time-intensive to complete–can bring multiple benefits. Enrollees are more likely to learn of and apply for programs for which they are eligible, and during the enrollment processes, they are more likely to complete applications fully and accurately. For public sector staff, when fewer applications require clarifications or follow ups, delays and backlogs will be reduced, and more capacity can be devoted to delivering benefits.

  • Creating a more “human-centered” experience: Improving the physical and digital experience of interacting with local government can be a powerful lever for improving outcomes for residents. In the physical realm, successful local efforts to improve the “customer experience” of interacting with government can include providing in-person “navigator” assistance to assist clients as they enter public facilities, reforming in-person appointments to take less time, or providing clients with greater flexibility for appointments in public facilities to accommodate work and family obligations. In the digital realm, simplifying websites, ensuring that websites are mobile device compatible, and providing real-time human support to website users can all have significant impacts.

  • Integrating benefits: A particularly potent way to ensure that residents receive all benefits for which they are eligible is consolidating applications that allow residents to apply for several benefits at the same time. Ensuring that residents can apply for benefits online, via simple, easy-to-use websites, can improve significantly improve uptake.

While this strategy has only rarely been subject to rigorous, independent evaluation, it is widely recognized as a best practice among experts in the racial equity space. 

  • A 2024 quasi-experimental study found that streamlining income verification requirements for a rental assistance program increased the approval rate of applications by between 7.5 and 13.2 percentage points. The change in verification requirements did not significantly affect the program's ability to detect fraudulent applications. 

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute has developed an indicator framework to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in reducing obstacles to receiving public benefits. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

  • “Mobile first” and “mobile responsive” websites: Many people access the internet primarily through mobile devices. Unfortunately, many public websites and benefits applications are not mobile device-compatible. Online forms should require minimal typing, show users their progress towards completion, be accessible for people who are visually impaired, and use plain, easy-to-understand language.

  • Co-create with residents with lived experience: When rethinking various processes related to public benefits–enrollment, benefits receipt, appointments in public facilities, etc.--solicit input and feedback from residents with experience interacting with these systems. These individuals will have valuable perspective on the barriers, bottlenecks, and opportunities for improvement. To ensure that input is gathered in an inclusive way, ensure that these opportunities for input are compensated, scheduled outside of working hours, and/or provide childcare.

  • Change narratives around racial equity: As local governments begin changing outreach and enrollment processes for public benefits, changing narratives among internal stakeholders is an important driver of success. Without a shared understanding of the historical role that government has played in creating inequities, internal stakeholders are less likely to fully engage in new processes. 

  • Start small, evaluate pilots, then scale: After input has been gathered and new designs or processes have been created, test these reforms at a small scale. Collect data on how the changes are working and identify areas that need additional improvements. Once challenges have been addressed, scale reforms to reach all residents. While piloting extends timeframes to full deployment, it increases the likelihood of success.

  • Build capacity for analysis and evaluation: When designing new products or processes, ensure there is capacity built in to understand how residents are being served. For digital products, administrators should be able to see where applicants are experiencing confusion on websites, how long applications are taking to complete, and the amount of time between application submissions and benefits receipt. Applicants should also be able to track application and enrollment status and understand when benefits will be delivered. For online and in-person processes, surveys are useful tools for understanding residents’ experiences