Play: Stand up a new system rapidly to get benefits to families (Pandemic-EBT)

In this play:

This play was written by Code for America, one of the partners in the Social Tech Collaborative

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has authorized states to make unprecedented changes to safety net programs like SNAP through the Families First and CARES Acts. While these new policy authorizations are important for states to be able to move quickly to serve people in need, it’s not easy to make changes to statewide eligibility systems on a dime. And it’s a profound challenge to devise and implement an entirely new statewide benefit that didn’t exist before, as is the case with Pandemic EBT.

Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) is a federal initiative to provide students that receive free and reduced price (FRP) school meals with a replacement food benefit to pay for groceries while schools are physically closed. The idea is simple and important - find families whose kids are eligible for FRP school meals and issue them EBT benefits. But the implementation is far more complicated. In many cases, data that lets states know who is eligible to receive P-EBT benefits is spread across multiple sources. This means that launching the benefit requires data sharing between state agencies - perhaps even creating new data transfer pathways between school districts, state education departments, and social services agencies - that didn’t exist before. In some cases, states are hustling to launch new digital applications for P-EBT in just weeks. Standing up a new P-EBT benefit surfaces numerous technical, logistical, and communication challenges, and the implementation of Pandemic EBT raises some important best practices for how governments can move quickly and respond to changing needs.

Best practices for this play

What can be done quickly
  • Use existing data where possible.
    Always use information you already have about people first, before asking them for new information. In the case of P-EBT, children in households that receive SNAP, TANF, and other means-tested social services automatically qualify for free school meals. Existing state data can therefore be used to identify students who are categorically eligible for free school meals and P-EBT, and to issue that benefit directly to them. Some states maintain current state-level data on FRP-eligible children, and have been able to utilize that data for direct issuance of P-EBT to all eligible children without the need for new information or an application.
  • Collaborate effectively across agencies.
    In order to implement P-EBT, state agencies need to collect or validate FRP data that is housed at the school district level. Collecting, consolidating, and matching this data takes quick cooperation between the social services agency, the department of education, and all the individual school districts. Agencies need to work together to rapidly establish a system for sharing data across all of these agencies.
  • Use off-the-shelf tools or other fast, simple technology to fill in the gaps.
    In some cases there still may be people eligible for the new benefit that cannot be found within existing data. In this case it’s possible to quickly stand up a new form or online application to capture these people’s information. Code for America has built an online application for P-EBT that is open-source, which any state can use. States or local agencies can also look to leverage existing text message platforms, social media, robocall systems, or other off-the-shelf technology to communicate with eligible families who may be hard to reach by mail.
What to aim for long term
  • Preemtively build communication pathways between agencies.
    Make sure that pathways for sharing data between systems and agencies are set up and agreed upon ahead of time. It’s safe to assume that all states will face future emergencies or natural disasters where a quick response is needed. Establish pathways and protocols for sharing data between agencies, so that when data is needed quickly, it’s easy to transfer.
  • Establish systems for data standardization.
    Using data effectively for the issuance of new benefits is complicated when data is inconsistent across agencies, or key pieces of information are missing or out of date. Standardizing data across agencies will make it easier to combine and compare. For instance, do all school districts capture the same information from families, or does that data vary district to district? It will also be helpful to establish consistent procedures for keeping information you have on file up to date.
  • Employ digital outreach strategies to reach people at scale.
    Digital marketing strategies and best practices should be a key element of outreach, particularly during times of crisis or with new or unfamiliar services or benefits. Serving people requires finding ways to effectively reach them where they are. There are popular assumptions that vulnerable populations can’t be reached online - but that’s no longer the case. Code for America’s Digital Outreach Playbook provides principles and best practices for digital outreach to vulnerable or hard-to-reach populations.

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