Voices From the Social Safety Net

Technology both delivers benefits and lets recipients advocate for themselves.

An older woman uses a smartphone while she pushes a shopping cart.
Apps can help marginalized members of society organize and engage at unprecedented scale.
SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In February 2018, Brianna LaBelle logged into an app on her smartphone to check the remaining balance of her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly called food stamps, to plan grocery purchases for her and her two sons. Instead of seeing the amount of money she had to spend on food for the rest of the month, the New York Times reported, LaBelle got a “currently unavailable” message. The outage “lasted for nearly a month, during which she also lost the timesaving and meal-planning convenience of the app.”

What happened? One of the two companies in America contracted to deliver SNAP to debit-esque cards decided to cut off a popular smartphone app, Fresh EBT, that LaBelle and more than 1 million other Americans then used each month. For more than half of the app’s monthly users, Fresh EBT was suddenly almost useless. Instead of using the app to find their balance quickly, people wishing to plan ahead would have to call and successfully navigate a 1-800 number system, adding back in friction they had already worked to remove from their lives.

This was a big problem for Propel, the small tech company behind Fresh EBT. Propel is focused on building a better safety net and increasing the value of public benefits for users of those systems. It’s attracted funding from old-school philanthropic institutions like the Robin Hood Foundation, alongside venture capital investment, including a contribution from NBA superstar Kevin Durant. Most importantly, Fresh EBT had earned the trust and support of the low-income Americans who use its service, who the company says check their balances seven times per month on average.

As part of its response to the sudden cutoff, Propel posted a banner inside the Fresh EBT app for users in New York state explaining why the app was not functioning and provided digital buttons to enable phone calls and emails so that concerned users could share their concerns with the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In an interview with us, Propel founder and CEO Jimmy Chen said that hundreds of New York residents called their governor’s office within a few hours, spurred by new technology to participate in one of America’s oldest traditions. (Disclosure: One of us, Justin, has a friendly relationship with Chen based on time spent at various conferences on the safety net.)

We often think about technology platforms as having democratized speech in extreme ways. The unmet challenge in politics is whether we can also improve the act of listening. Those Americans who are most marginalized, and most dismissed, by our political system can now organize and engage at unprecedented scale. Technology is building new channels allowing once-quiet voices to speak. Those voices could revolutionize the safety net and even improve our democracy.

Users of the safety net have long been demeaned and demonized by politicians for political gain—just take Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen or Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. Americans who are low-income and use the safety net are quite accustomed to being told they don’t matter in countless ways large and small—especially if they’re nonwhite.

Technology often serves to accelerate that process. In 2008, Indiana launched an automated welfare eligibility program motivated by perceptions of fraud. According to the scholar Virginia Eubanks, the new system denied 1 million benefit claims in its first three years, a 54 percent increase from the three years prior. (Eubanks is a former New America fellow; New America, where we both work, is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) In 2018, Arkansas became the first state to implement work requirements for the Medicaid expansion population through a waiver approved by the Trump administration. The only way for affected residents to report their compliance with the new requirements was an online portal—despite the fact that Arkansas has the nation’s lowest rate of household internet access. Six months into this experiment, nearly 20,000 people (more than 20 percent of those affected by the new rules) had lost health insurance coverage. The state responded in part by creating a new telephone portal allowing affected individuals to report their work requirements. The phone line and the website both “close” at 9 each night and reopen at 7 the next morning.

There is a strong correlation between how people are treated by government and the likelihood that they participate in our political process. Dehumanize them and bury them with paperwork, and they’ll quit trying to apply for help and disengage politically. Start listening and respecting people’s value, and they will engage with our society and government. Fortunately, the number of organizations—both for- and nonprofit—trying to listen appears to be growing. MRelief is piloting a tool to support people applying for SNAP via text message. Benefits Data Trust uses targeted outreach, data, and technology to help people access the safety net in six states. Benefit Kitchen provides screening tools for safety net eligibility and sells software to hospitals and social service providers to help screen people and connect them to needed services.

These efforts are beginning to penetrate and affect core government services. California has traditionally had one of the nation’s lowest rates of SNAP (called CalFresh there) enrollment. Technologists with the nonprofit organization Code for America began exploring whether they could improve the application process and make enrollment easier. While working with applicants, they observed a lengthy and frustrating application and troubling process failures—like mailed notifications for verification appointments arriving after the stated date and time of the appointment. It also relied on ancient technology: fax machines.

What began as a series of small pilots has turned into a full partnership with the State of California called GetCalFresh, which has reinvented the application process for SNAP in California. The web-based and mobile product has transformed application into an eight-minute process and eliminated the need for faxing and mailing documents by allowing users to upload necessary paperwork using cellphone cameras. Code for America’s work in California is spawning additional investments in what the organization calls “delivery-driven government.” The Integrated Benefits Initiative is a new partnership between Code for America, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Nava Public Benefit Corp., and five states working to “experiment with new technology and methods, and to work together to consider and prioritize the client experience within their eligibility and enrollment processes.”

Propel’s Fresh EBT is up and running again, now serving more than 1.5 million users each month across the country, helping users manage the effects of the government shutdown and working to engage them in defending and improving the safety net. Fresh EBT worked with a Philadelphia-based organization, the Food Trust, to organize local residents around the farm bill. SNAP participants sent emails to their elected officials explaining how proposed policy changes around SNAP work requirements would affect them. “One thing that we consistently see missing in the policy conversation is the voices of actual clients themselves,” Chen told us. “We aspire to allow the actual families that receive SNAP benefits to talk about their own stories and about the impacts that policies have on them directly.”

The Trump administration is working to allow more states to impose work requirements like those in Arkansas on Medicaid and to open the door to similar rules in SNAP. Last week, Code for America launched a new website that distills input from hundreds of anonymous users and “combats myths, provides facts, and most importantly, elevates the voices of GetCalFresh users.” This new wave of tech actors isn’t just building apps for Brianna LaBelle—it’s also building megaphones.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.