Revised June 15, 2006
NOTE: For more information about the food stamp program in your state and how to apply, use this comprehensive list at the end of the report.
FOOD STAMPS ON-LINE:
A REVIEW OF STATE GOVERNMENT FOOD STAMP WEBSITES
Virtually all states have made information regarding the Food Stamp Program, including their applications, state policy manuals or regulations, and general program information, available to the public via the World Wide Web. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reviewed each state’s web pages to determine what information and services they offer regarding the Food Stamp Program.
This paper lists the addresses for each state’s food stamp web pages and also provides an overview of the types of information and services that states provide. Those interested in expanding the services provided on their state’s web page may find the overview section helpful because it highlights the various features states offer, such as benefit calculators or office locators.
Readers may access states’ web page listings and addresses either by clicking on a state name in the table below or using the comprehensive list at the end of the paper.
Overview of Findings
There is significant variation among states’ food stamp web pages and their on-line services. Some states provide a simple description of the program on their agency’s website. Others offer applications, benefit calculators, pre-screening tools, detailed program operation instructions for caseworkers, known as “policy manuals,” and copies of program memorandums to eligibility workers that describe policy changes to the program. By making all of these materials readily accessible to the public, states can facilitate an improved understanding of the Food Stamp Program. The table below summarizes the types of services available and which states offer them.
OVERVIEW OF SERVICES AVAILABLE ON STATE FOOD STAMP WEB PAGES
States that Offer
||AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WI, WY
||DE, FL, KS, NJ, PA, TX, VA, WA, WV// only for select counties and towns: MA, NY//as of summer 2006: WI
|Eligibility Screening Tools
||AK, FL, IN, KS, MA, MD, MN, NH, RI, TX, VA, WA// only for select counties: NY
||DE, IL, NJ, ND, OR, PA, SC, TX, WA, WV, WI
|Link to USDA’s Benefit Calculator
||CA, CO, IA, KY, LA, MN, MO, NV, NC, OH, OK, SD, TN, WY
|On-line Policy Manuals
||AL, AK, AR, CA, CO, DC, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, WI, WV, WY//not accessible to public: AZ
|Basic Program Information
||AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND,OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY
- Printable applications are available on forty-nine state websites and the District of Columbia website. State food stamp agencies with websites are now required by law to make their food stamp application available on-line. In addition, the application must be posted to the website in every language in which the state makes paper copies available. Twenty-seven states make their application available online in one foreign language, while eleven states make it available in two or more foreign languages. Making applications available on-line is a helpful tool for those interested in increasing access to the Food Stamp Program. It allows potential food stamp participants to review or to complete the application outside of the welfare office, often with the help of a community services agency. By seeing the application in advance of going to the welfare office, individuals can familiarize themselves with the information required to complete the application process. This simple step can help to make the process more transparent and less daunting to potential applicants.
- On-line applications actually allow individuals to complete and submit an application over the internet. Eleven states offer on-line application in addition to their printable application: Delaware, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. Massachusetts and New York offer this tool only in certain towns and counties. Wisconsin will offer on-line application beginning summer 2006. Four states make their on-line application in Spanish as well. On-line applications are a very promising option to facilitate enrollment in the program. Using this tool, individuals can apply for food stamps directly from a computer. Most applicants will likely have to visit the welfare office to finalize their application and to provide verification of their circumstances, but an on-line application helps them to initiate the process. Getting the process started earlier is important to low-income families — it can mean extra benefits and faster service. Eligible applicants receive benefits retroactive to their date of application and states must process applications consistent with the rules governing paper applications.
Eligibility screening tools are available on thirteen state websites. This tool asks users several questions about their income and household circumstances and, based on the responses, informs users of their potential eligibility for public benefits. Many eligible individuals do not know or believe that they qualify for food stamps and state-operated screening or self-assessment tools can be very powerful outreach tools to those dubious about their eligibility. Screening tools are most effective if questions are limited to the most pertinent eligibility issues and assist users with the answers rather than requiring users to fill in blank spaces.
Kansas’s screening tool is a good example of how to structure a short, easy-to-use tool. It is only one page long and for each question provides several answers from which to choose. Based on the information provided by the user, the Kansas screening tool provides a list of potential programs for which the user may be eligible, including food stamps, and a direct link to descriptive information about, and online applications for, those programs.
Benefit calculators are available on twenty-five state websites (fourteen of these links to the USDA Benefit Calculator). Benefit calculators are similar to eligibility screening tools; however, they also provide users with an estimate of the amount of benefits for which they might qualify. In addition to the perception that they are not eligible, a major reason low-income individuals do not participate in the Food Stamp Program is they often believe (incorrectly) that they would only receive a low level of benefits. By giving interested individuals an estimate of their potential benefit amount, a benefit calculator addresses this misperception and helps the individual to assess whether applying for assistance would be worth the time and energy.
Benefit calculators necessarily have to ask more questions than screening tools, typically about a household’s deductible expenses. Nevertheless, is important to strike a balance between brevity and detail to avoid both bogging down users in programmatic detail and misleading them by omitting pertinent eligibility criteria. One way to achieve this is to keep the calculator concise and to inform users that there are additional eligibility criteria that the state will have to screen for, such as immigration status. For intended users, the calculator could provide basic information about these additional criteria in a tone that encourages users to apply. Similarly, calculators can get overwhelming and cumbersome for users if they attempt to determine eligibility and benefit levels for numerous programs.
Wisconsin’s benefit calculator does a good job of asking for needed information on six screens using graphics and simple language to avoid any confusion. The final result, which can be printed, includes the information the user provided, an estimated benefit, and the location of the local office. In addition to food stamps it screens for eligibility for medical benefits, TEFAP Medicare Part D, WIC, and tax credits. The result also links to a printable application and a list of documents to bring to the office. By contrast, South Carolina’s benefit calculator is shorter — one page with seven short questions, although it screens only for food stamps. It provides links to an information page on how to apply and a page with office locations. Both states’ calculators avoid being overly cumbersome by not asking about important eligibility information such an immigrant status and resources, but include general language warning that there are other eligibility criteria one must satisfy to receive benefits.
If a state is unable to develop its own benefit calculator, it can provide a link directly to the USDA Benefit Calculator in order to give potential food stamp recipients an approximation of the amount of food stamps that could be received. Fourteen states have chosen to provide this link. Missouri, for instance, highlights the link to USDA’s tool on their website.
On-line policy manuals are an additional tool offered on forty-eight state websites. Forty states created a web-based policy manual in the form of a searchable database. Providing a searchable manual helps to make state policies easy to locate and transparent to the public. For example, Illinois’s policy manual includes a clear list of contents, a separate listing of new manual releases, and an easy-to-use search-engine that provides clear and detailed search results.
Another useful feature that some states offer is information about recent changes to the state’s policy manual. Typically, the state posts policy memoranda to caseworkers that describe the changes. In many cases, these memos are difficult for non-experts to navigate because they are written in very technical language. Wisconsin provides a good example of how to make these memoranda, called “green sheets” in Wisconsin, more accessible to the public and potentially more useful to caseworkers. Each green sheet is structured in the same way. It explains the policy change in simple language, provides a rationale for the change, and outlines the differences between old and new policy. This makes it possible for individuals without technical knowledge to comprehend changes to state policies as well as why the changes were made.
Program information varies on each state website. States generally offer at least some basic food stamp program information on their websites, including eligibility requirements and a description of how to apply for food stamps. Often times, however, these descriptions focus on the legislative history of the program or jump immediately to program restrictions rather than outline the program’s purpose in helping low-income individuals and families or convey the state agency’s service philosophy. What a state says about the Food Stamp Program on its web page sets a tone and conveys a message to the public about the agency’s philosophy.
The Nevada web page offers a strong example of a welcoming introduction to the program and the state agency that explains how each can help:
“Many Nevadans have trouble making ends meet each month. After paying for rent, utilities, transportation, and child care, there is often little left over to buy nutritious food. But it doesn't have to be that way. Each month thousands of families across the state turn to the Nevada State Division of Welfare and Supportive Services for assistance in the form of food stamp benefits to help feed their families. Read on to learn how you can receive help if you qualify.”
This introduction is followed by a number of links designed to address common concerns and provide important information. The information provided is similar in content to what many other states provide, but it is very easy to understand and it focuses on the program from the low-income individual’s perspective rather than from a program operations perspective.
In addition to basic program information, more than half the states offer office-locator tools such as maps and zip-code searches to help individuals locate their local community service office. For example, Oklahoma’s website provides an office locator feature using a map of the state. Users click on the county where they live and the site provides the address, phone number, operating hours, and a picture of each county’s welfare offices. Even a simple list of offices, organized by county, as many states provide, may be very helpful to prospective applicants
Some states also provide additional administrative forms on their sites that are very useful for clients. Maryland, for example, provides printable versions of hearing request forms or forms to report changes in household circumstances. Normally, states provide these forms only at the local office. By making this type of paperwork available on the web, Maryland potentially reduces administrative burden on local office staff because clients can access the forms they need directly or seek the help of a community group to obtain and to complete the forms.
State Government Websites on the Food Stamp Program
Click here for a listing of state government resources regarding the Food Stamp Program posted on the web. A comprehensive list of states resources available on all major low-income programs, see “Online Information About Key Low-Income Benefit Programs” can be found at https://www.cbpp.org/1-14-04tanf.htm.
There are several important caveats to consider when using this list. States are not consistent in their use of terms such as “policy manual.” Furthermore, this list was not developed via a comprehensive survey of states and may not be complete. Please notify Tina Marshall at the Center to update or revise this listing.
Access the hyperlinked PDF of the guide to state government web sites.