Using the Internet to Facilitate Enrollment In Benefit Programs
Eligibility Screeners and Online Applications
Over the last decade, internet technology has transformed many aspects of our society, including how people obtain information and conduct personal and professional transactions. It can also offer new ways for working families to learn about and enroll in benefit programs for which they may qualify.
All states have websites that provide information about public benefit programs, including printable application forms for at least some of the major programs. A handful of state websites offer additional features as well, including “screeners” that help families determine the benefit programs for which they may qualify and applications that can be filled out and submitted online. This paper explores the issues that states need to consider in designing these online screening and application features.
States can use their websites to facilitate enrollment in the following ways:
- Eligibility screeners and benefit calculators. Eligibility screeners are interactive tools that use information submitted by the household to identify the programs for which the household may qualify. These tools sometimes include “benefit calculators,” which estimate the amount of benefits the family may receive. Some non-governmental agencies also have developed screeners or calculators for specific programs or states.
- Application forms. Nearly all states have printable application forms for various programs posted on their websites. These files are typically in PDF or HTML format and thus cannot be filled in electronically. About nine states, however, have application forms for some programs posted in a format (such as a Microsoft Word file) that enables users to complete the application using a standard word processing program and then print the completed application form, which they then can mail, fax, or hand deliver to the welfare office.
- Online application filing. This is an interactive process in which users submit the information needed to determine eligibility through the internet to initiate the application process. Generally the documentation needed to verify eligibility for benefits must be submitted separately; for some programs, an interview may be required as well. Some states have online functions for reporting changes in circumstances and submitting eligibility renewal forms.
Online functions such as these cannotreplace procedures that allow families to apply for benefits at a local human services office or by mail or phone. Many low-income families will find applying in person or by phone easier than a process that requires computer access and both computer and reading proficiency (probably in English).
 Additional recent resources on online screening or application are Applying Online: Technological Innovation for Income Support Programs in Four States: Pennsylvania, Washington State, California and Georgia, January 2004, available at http://www.impact research.org/documents/applyingonline.pdf; Modernization of State TANF Systems: Using the Web for Preeligibility Screening, State Information Technology Consortium, June 2003, available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/nhsitrc/downloads/reports/rptwebscreenv01.00.05.pdf; Prescreening Tools to Help Working Families Access Public Benefits, National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families, (forthcoming).