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.

What evidence supports this strategy?

While this strategy has not been subject to rigorous, independent evaluations, it is widely recognized as a best practice among experts in the racial equity space.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Reducing obstacles to receiving public benefits has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are opportunities for income, financial security, access to health care, and transportation access.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring opportunities for income in your community: Examine the household income at 20th, 50th, and 80th percentiles. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring financial security in your community: Examine the share of households with debt in collections. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Debt in America website.

  • Measuring access to health services in your community: Examine the ratio of residents to primary care physicians. These data are available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Area Health Resource File.

  • Measuring transportation access in your community: Examine indexes for transit trips and transportation costs. These estimates are available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Location Affordability Index.

Best practices in implementation

  • “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