January 29, 2021 – By Chad Smith

To promote health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the City and County of San Francisco rapidly moved over 2,000 people experiencing homelessness into city-contracted private hotels. These hotels, however, did not all have working phones available for guest use, thereby limiting essential services and connections for guests. The California COVID Command Center, a mixture of departments across cities, was tasked in June 2020 to initiate a pilot program to support phone access in these accommodations. As guests were being asked to shelter-in-place, telephonic communication was critical for vulnerable populations to access case management, behavioral and mental health supports, wellness screenings, and connectedness to family and friends.

In collaboration with the San Francisco COVID Command Center, the San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO) completed a user-centered, data-informed, two-phase prototyping pilot to design the best approach to successfully enroll the newly-sheltered clients onto phone services in response to COVID-19.

Since 1985, the LifeLine program has provided discounted phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services.

Who Was Involved

  • San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO), in collaboration with the California COVID Command Center, providing Service Design expertise
  • California Department of Public Health, providing mental health and client expertise
  • California IT team, which had previously procured tablets for its housing-related work


Two pilots launched to address the problem of getting phone access to hotel guests.

The first pilot included setting up a Google Voice number on previously-distributed tablets. Google Voice is a free service that makes it possible to send and receive calls and text messages over a cellular or WiFi data connection. The SFHSAIO team worked with a number of guests to set up Google Voice accounts that included an assigned phone number. Guests could use this new phone number on tablet devices available in their hotel. The process to set up tablets was lengthy, and some guests also did not have an email address, which had to be created in order to enroll them.

Once set up, guests could use their tablets to make and receive phone calls.

The second pilot enrolled hotel guests in telephone services through a roving, on-the-ground team. The California Lifeline Program collaborates with a large number of cell phone providers who provide cell phones at a variety of rates from free to low cost. The application process takes up to 30 days from start to finish, with field agents helping to handout phones on the ground.

After researching the LifeLine plans available that would best suit the client population, the SFHSAIO team identified two phone providers that offered free plans and free phones. The SFHSAIO team was unable to identify a field agent that could be brought on site to assist guests in registering for LifeLine phones.

The SFHSAIO team then set up a space in the hotel lobby to gather insights by enrolling clients who did not have cell phone access. The team connected clients to LifeLine program administrative assistants to resolve barriers and assist client enrollment in the program.

Pilot Recommendations

When evaluating the return on investment, the first pilot was free of charge to access, but required access to tablets or devices and human support to set up and maintain. For the second pilot, there was a cost of $57.50 per client with only a 20% successful enrollment rate, which made it infeasible for the desired goal.

Because success rates were low and staff capacity was limited during the COVID-19 emergency, after conducting both pilots, the final recommendation was to a third option: handing out pre-activated phones, with limited functionality previously activated on their carrier network, at hotel sites. This avenue would reduce the strain on scarce staff resources, while ensuring a high success rate and quicker access.

KPI Metrics

The final recommendation of handing out phones with data already activated onsite was determined after evaluating the following key performance indicators (KPIs):

  1. length of time per phone registration per client
  2. success rate for enrollment onto the program
  3. success rate for conversion from enrollment to actually owning an activated phone
  4. cost per client
  5. uptake of method (i.e., frequency of usage of device)

Key Customer Journey Pain Point Learnings from Both Pilots

  1. needing email address to sign-up for LifeLine program 
  2. coordinating with guests during limited pilot hours
  3. troubleshooting for guests with existing LifeLine accounts that could not remember their info and were locked out
  4. tablet logistics (tracking, distribution, incentives for returning, thefts and damage)
  5. missing identification of required documents to enroll in LifeLine

Factors to Repeat the San Francisco Pilot Learning Processes

For state and local Health and Human Services departments exploring the best approach to enroll recently-displaced vulnerable populations onto a connected phone service, building prototypes to learn from and deliver the best experience should include the following steps:

Leadership and Management Teams

  • Gather voices across impacted teams: Talk to a variety of stakeholders in managerial and non-supervisory roles, in different departments, and to clients themselves to understand what’s working and identify frustrations and barriers. 
  • Establish metrics or KPIs: Define success using clear realities, resources needed, cost of setup feasibility, and time to implement.
  • Create strategic buy-in: Start with on-the-ground staff, and then move to Community Partner Organizations (CPO), hotel site leads, hotel site managers and clients/guests.

Direct Service, Service Design and Policy Teams

  • Map barriers to enrollment: Identify barriers for different enrollment paths and plan for them upfront. Potential enrollees, for example, may not have an email address required for enrollment registration.
  • Troubleshoot with guests: Sometimes guests will not have official documents available such as a government-issued ID. Working through these types of barriers will reduce guest frustration and lack of trust. 
  • Manage challenges with third-party phone vendors: Carefully research third-party phone vendors to ensure clients are not a victim of fraud. Contact information for third-party vendors is not commonly available, as most community interaction is done on the ground and face-to-face. This means it’s important to go through a process of vetting reputable phone providers, and following up to ensure guests received the phones they registered for if done through third-party vendor distributors.
  • Keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize”: Remember, and share in, the excitement and gratitude of having a phone again.

October 30, 2020 – By Sara Soka

Millions of Americans rely on the social safety net to provide basic economic, food, and housing support when experiencing hardship. When COVID-19 killed millions of jobs and drove benefit demand to unprecedented levels, the often-difficult steps to receiving benefits — submitting documents about your income and household at a government office or by mail, waiting for a decision on your application, and needing to recertify your eligibility often if your situation doesn’t improve quickly — got even harder. Applicants have been dogged by outdated, manual systems for years, and they can be especially tough for people in precarious situations to maneuver. In March, Simon Tung told Reuters his attempts to get unemployment payments were a struggle.

“He called hundreds of times. When he did get through, sometimes he would get a message saying the system was overwhelmed and to call back. On April 2, he received his first direct deposit from New York state – for $0.”

cover of social safety net benefits report
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The good news is that there are successful examples of government bringing social safety net benefit delivery up to contemporary standards. In the last decade, a small but growing number of local, state, and federal government agencies have worked with nonprofits and public benefit corporations to make many steps in the benefit application process easier. The Beeck Center’s latest report, Technology, Data, and Design-Enabled Approaches for a More Responsive, Effective Social Safety Net examines tools and methods that are working, presenting opportunities for scale to reach more Americans in need. Government executives, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations can use the examples and case studies to leverage the renewed interest in improving the functionality of these systems in the wake of COVID-19. With the likely passage of new stimulus legislation after the 2020 general election, this is an opportunity for a large federal investment to improve the social safety net, and the chance to learn from the people who have been working in this field for years.

For instance, the nonprofit design studio Civilla worked with benefit applicants and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to combine five benefit applications into one. The new application is 80% shorter and takes half the time to process. It’s also available in a mobile-friendly online format allowing users to manage changes to their benefits, upload documents and photos, and receive text notifications.

We started working on this project in February 2020, just prior to the onset of the pandemic. The report’s recommendations are overarching and tactical, drawn from case studies and white papers from leading organizations in this field including Code for America, Benefits Data Trust, and Nava, interviews with practitioners, and news reports. The report focuses on needs with particular resonance now, when the pandemic has tried the capacity of existing benefit systems and racial justice continues to be a primary concern for the nation. Reports like this are only as useful as they are actionable, and this one offers the chance to apply the hard-earned insights of leaders in the field, who we’ll continue to partner with to implement the lessons we’ve uncovered and scale what works, making these systems work better for everyone.

August 28, 2020 – By Angela Guo

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of the social safety net amidst historic losses and tragedies: mass unemployment, food insecurity, and uninsured healthcare, to name a few. And when it comes to race, a deep dive into the numbers is jarring: Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, both financially and health-wise — the Black and white unemployment gap widened to 5.3 percentage points in June and the coronavirus is killing Black Americans at a rate three times that of white people. This isn’t a coincidence.

The Black Lives Matter movement is radically changing how we look at our public institutions, personal actions, and historical relationships through the basis of race. The movement has led to the removal of confederate statues, discussions about representation in media, and legislation regarding police funding. These groundbreaking changes result from overdue analyses of how race is integrated into our systems and symbols, in ways many had never thought twice about. The social safety net system consists of welfare programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance, that provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of low-income Americans. As one of our nation’s most prominent systems in a time of crisis, the social safety net must be examined in the context of race.

Overt to Covert: The History of the U.S. Social Safety Net

“I understand they’re going through a fraud situation, but that doesn’t pay my bills,” Karen Womack told The Washington Post. After Karen verified her identity for unemployment benefits with the state of Washington and the state’s unemployment office cut her aid anyway, she found herself caught up in a system that has institutionalized racism since its founding in 1935.

The U.S. government passed the Social Security Act of 1935 providing an early safety net for elderly, unemployed, and disadvantaged Americans, described by President Franklin Roosevelt as “some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family.” Yet, lawmakers codified the first formal safety net with racism; unemployment insurance was a key component of that law, but agricultural workers and personal service workers were ineligible, leaving 65% of Black American workers without access to unemployment insurance, compared to 27% of white workers. Again, this isn’t a coincidence.

Racist sentiments have echoed throughout the years of discussion around social safety net policy. In 1976, Ronald Reagan leveraged the “welfare queen” narrative in his presidential campaign to describe a Black woman who used “80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” This narrative further fueled racial animosity towards Black Americans and unfairly associated them with using fraud to exploit the safety net.

A Brief History of the Social Safety Net in the United States

Expand this timeline to full screen

Politicians today replicate the welfare queen narrative with a focus on preventing fraud instead of finding ways to effectively deliver benefits to vulnerable Americans. The Beeck Center’s Social Safety Net Benefits Research details the technological barriers in the social safety net imposed by, for example, the digital divide and remote identity proofing when accessing benefits. While current safety net policies don’t share the same overt racist language used to construct the first policies, structural racism compounded over decades still poses obstacles for Black individuals from equitably accessing the safety net. Not only does structural racism prevail in the social safety net, but it also presents itself in other institutions in the United States such as the criminal justice system, education system, and child welfare system.

Patterns of racism in our social institutions often go unacknowledged and unchallenged since they have become ingrained in our society. We must create and implement data and technology solutions that focus on eliminating the racial inequities found in the social safety net system and other public institutions. Working through the lens of anti-racism is a critical requirement for the work of social impact.

What We Can Do

After looking at the history of the social safety net in the United States, we can begin to go beyond the surface of the problems we aim to address. As leaders in the social impact space, we must:

  • Understand the institutionalization of racism in our systems and institutions while designing direct solutions. Without deepening our understanding of racism in the foundation of our social institutions, we may inadvertently scale ideas that are merely the modernized versions of the exclusionary practices from the past.
  • Constantly analyze the tools we use for social impact. We often see technological advances as efficient tools for advancing social impact. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology details the intersection of race and technology, and how emerging tech and data tools covertly leverage racism in design solutions. Though unintentional, there can be harmful effects on the populations they were meant to serve when we use tools that were historically meant to discriminate.
  • Emphasize process over product in our work. Product-oriented work often neglects the complexities of the problem itself, and the product instead becomes a blanket on the problem we aim to address through social impact. When taking more time to explore the process of our work, we can be better equipped with the methods and capabilities for achieving equitable and sustainable social impact through the lens of racial equity.
  • Evaluate the positions we hold, both personally and professionally. Are leaders in decision-making and social influence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)? Are we designing solutions with and for oppressed communities, or are we instead pushing them aside when making decisions?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of steps we can take in our role as social innovators. Anti-racism is an ongoing process that requires active learning coupled with meaningful action. By acting intentionally with a deep comprehension of the intricacies of structural racism in social impact, we can begin to break down the systems and patterns that perpetuate racism and exclusion within our systems and ensure that our social safety net is there to equitably serve all Americans when they need it.

Angela Guo was a Summer 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center supporting the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studying Economics and Public Policy.

July 24, 2020 – By Sara Soka + Chad Smith

“Build back better” is a phrase borrowed from disaster recovery. At its core it means when a system is damaged (or exposed as being damaged), the optimal repair uses all available resources to build back a stronger, more effective, and more resilient system. 

Federal social safety net programs provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of Americans, but their eligibility, enrollment, and delivery processes are notoriously difficult to navigate. As demand for benefits grew with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the insufficient capacity and burdensome processes of the social safety net became painfully apparent and widely publicized, though these conditions are not new. At the Beeck Center, we have been researching the leading-edge examples where data, design practices, and technology are being leveraged to more effectively deliver benefits. This ongoing research effort is showing what is possible and where governments, companies, and service-providing nonprofits are leaning into novel and ambitious approaches to help more people, faster, and for less cost.

Earlier this month, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth led a Congressional hearing about the longstanding need for federal investment in modernizing state and federal IT systems, made more urgent in the wake of COVID-19. “State unemployment offices, already underfunded and understaffed, were left completely unprepared for the massive influx of need,” Rep. Yarmuth said. “The federal government has long sought to prioritize modern, secure, and shared IT solutions, but funding uncertainties, stemming from constrained discretionary funding under budget caps, shutdown threats, and continuing resolutions have made agencies more likely to update instead of modernize.”

cover of Social Safety Net Benefits report
Read the Complete Report

To support the ability of agencies to modernize at scale, our research details successful models for bringing social safety net benefit delivery up to contemporary standards. This living report — which we will update at regular intervals throughout 2020 — examines the data, design, technology, and innovation-enabled approaches that make it easier for eligible people to enroll in, and receive, federally-funded social safety net benefits. 

Through our research, we seek to understand what tools and processes exist, which can be replicated, and what experts identify as overarching needs. We will present what new approaches are possible and can be replicated and scaled, especially if there is the political and popular will to drive a large federal investment in a tech-enabled social safety net in the wake of COVID-19. We anticipate that this living report will be of particular interest to leaders able to take integrated, system-wide action, including government executives, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations. We also hope it promotes aligned efforts between the nonprofits, public benefit corporations, and government agencies that are changing benefit delivery for the better.

“We cannot afford to pour time, attention, and enormous sums of money into a process for building and buying software that hasn’t worked for decades.”

– Jennifer Pahlka, U.S. Digital Response

Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and co-founder of the U.S. Digital Service and U.S. Digital Response testified before the House Budget Committee, saying,

“We must invest in modernizing the technology that runs our services, but I am deeply concerned that the urgency of the moment will cause us to forget that we must also change how we make these investments. We cannot afford to pour time, attention, and enormous sums of money into a process for building and buying software that hasn’t worked for decades…. To fix this, Congress will need to be more than a checkbook. This body will have to become a staunch and visible ally of hybrid tech-policy teams who practice agile development and user-centered design wherever they exist.”

Our report highlights many organizations that have been developing tech-enabled approaches for years, including Alluma, Benefits Data Trust, Civilla, Code for America, Nava, and others. In gathering and presenting the hard-earned experience of innovators in this space, our report complements a forthcoming analysis of the scope and reach of organizations from the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, as well as timely policy and process analysis from our colleagues at New America’s New Practice Lab

For too long, structural inequities based on race, class, gender, and other factors have kept many Americans struggling for economic security. These existing inequities have intensified the pandemic’s economic and health impacts, which have hit Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant households disproportionately hard. Design, data, and technology can make the social safety net faster and more reliable, providing a meaningful push toward equity and a more resilient system during crisis.  Going forward, we will keep sharing the work of innovative governments and organizations that are modernizing the social safety net in future installments of our report. We welcome your feedback and insights at sara [dot] soka [at] georgetown [dot] edu and cs1934 [at] georgetown [dot] edu.

Sara Soka and Chad Smith are fellows in the Digital Service Collaborative at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

For many low-income children, school is where they get their meals. It is not just about education, but because it’s where they receive nutrition– free and reduced-price meals five days a week. Last month, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which created a Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) emergency response program allowing families whose children qualify for those meals at school to receive funds on an EBT card to use at grocery stores. Each state administers these benefits differently and all needed to move quickly to get this support to families relying on it.

The Beeck Center launched our Social Safety Net Benefits project this year to study systems and tools being developed to make it easier for people to apply for benefits like food assistance, housing support, and healthcare. Our mission—to surface actionable recommendations for leveraging data, digital, and innovation-enabled solutions for eligibility screening and enrollment in federally-funded social safety net benefits—is now more important than ever as civic tech teams and government agencies race to meet the overwhelming demand. 

The Beeck Center’s Data + Digital Lead Cori Zarek also co-founded U.S. Digital Response (USDR) to provide pro bono data and tech support to governments as they respond to COVID-19. USDR has offered to help states implement P-EBT alongside existing EBT processes with data engineering support to manage the systems on the back end and a front-end web application built by Code for America, another organizational co-founder of USDR. The USDR coordination is being led by Beeck Fellow Sara Soka who co-leads the safety net research project.

Since it launched in mid-March, USDR has recruited nearly 5,000 volunteers from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. who bring skills in data science, engineering, design, operations, research, policy making, and more. USDR has talked to dozens of government teams to learn about their needs and matched volunteers to 150 projects including:

The USDR P-EBT project is actively rolling out in states this week starting with California. Beeck Fellows Robin Carnahan, Tyler Kleykamp, and staffer Taylor Campbell are supporting additional USDR projects, and student analyst Alberto Rodriguez Álvarez has worked with colleagues in his home country of Mexico to adapt a version of the effort called Brigada Digital.

April 24, 2020 | By Elaina Faust

Economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak have challenged America’s social safety net in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Temporary closures of non-essential businesses across the country have led to large-scale layoffs, and as a result the country is experiencing record-breaking numbers of unemployment claims. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps,” is also facing a rapid increase in demand, overwhelming government service delivery systems.

The Beeck Center launched our Social Safety Net Benefits project this year to study systems and tools being developed to make it easier for people to apply for benefits. Our mission—to surface actionable recommendations for leveraging data, digital, and innovation-enabled solutions for eligibility screening and enrollment in federally-funded social safety net benefits—is now more important than ever as civic tech teams and government agencies race to meet the overwhelming demand.

In response to the outbreak, the federal government is putting billions of dollars into the safety net through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Together, these two measures extend the time limits on SNAP and WIC (food assistance for Women, Infants, and Children), boost the amount of unemployment insurance available per week, and open unemployment eligibility to self-employed and gig workers who ordinarily wouldn’t receive these.

Additional changes are happening at the state level to waive work requirements and automatically extend existing benefits, postponing the need for in-person renewal meetings.

This unprecedented test of the system reveals important lessons and highlights strengths and weaknesses in current eligibility screening and enrollment practices. Here are a few lessons COVID-19 has taught us:

Remote eligibility screening, application, and enrollment tools are must-haves, not nice-to-haves.

Tools for online eligibility screening and safety net benefits enrollment have begun to emerge in recent years, yet, according to research by Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative, at least 30% of benefits applications still aren’t available online. In this era of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders, the ability to remotely apply for and enroll in social safety net benefits is essential for applicants to access the assistance they need without putting themselves and their communities at risk. State governments should take advantage of newly-available opportunities to waive or delay in-person application requirements if they have not already, and continue to expand online alternatives to paper-based applications.

Mobile-first solutions are needed to reach low-income populations.

In the United States, 17% of adults rely on a smartphone as their only means of accessing the internet at home. Smartphone dependence is disproportionately high among low-income individuals, impacting more than a quarter of those earning less than $30,000 a year. With public libraries, coffee shops, and other public internet sources closed in an effort to flatten the curve, accessing the internet is even harder for those without a broadband connection at home. Organizations creating digitally-enabled tools for applicants and participants of safety net benefits programs must design and optimize their solutions for use on mobile devices. Likewise, state government officials must favor mobile-friendly technology in vendor and product selection processes if they are to reach the most vulnerable among their target populations.

Digital solutions must be equipped to handle increased volume in times of crisis.

Unprecedented levels of traffic crashed unemployment application websites across the country in recent weeks, evoking painful memories of the 2013 launch of Healthcare.gov. New York State experienced an almost 900% increase in web traffic, leading the government to request that New Yorkers file for unemployment only on designated days of the week, assigned alphabetically. Illinois implemented a similar system in an effort to keep existing resources up and running. Whether online application systems are designed by internal government teams or by external vendors, system designers—and those managing the systems—should equip them to handle increases in volume where budgets allow. When budgets are lacking, state governments should at least establish non-tech-driven protocols for distributing website traffic to prevent undue added stress for applicants during difficult and scary times.

Self-service digitally-accessible information saves time for applicants and administrators alike.

As millions work through the benefits application process, many are navigating it for the very first time. Organizations that connect eligible individuals with safety net benefits are experiencing huge upticks in call center volumes in addition to increased online traffic, and applicants are spending hours on hold waiting to be helped, if they can get through at all. Resources allowing benefit applicants or participants to locate relevant information quickly and easily on their own are critical to lowering wait times and decreasing demand on overwhelmed administrators. Up-to-date online guides to the benefits application process, such as One Degree’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Resource Guide, allow applicants to find the answers they need, without the wait time. Mobile push notifications or in-app updates can help program participants understand how they are affected by updated legislation and help them navigate the recertification process.

In times of crisis, it can be difficult to find time for reflection. But learning from the challenges we face today is an essential part of creating a stronger and more resilient social safety net for tomorrow.

Elaina Faust is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation working on the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a first-year graduate student in the Global Human Development program.

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