Overcoming Barriers: How GetCalFresh helps applicants submit verifications

By Norris Hung and Eric Giannella

GetCalFresh helps 15,000 households apply for food assistance every month. 17% of those applications are denied due to missing verification documents for income, expenses, and circumstances. This accounts for more than a third of all GetCalFresh denials. Over the last three months, we’ve increased the number of verifications submitted with our applications by over 60%. In this post, we discuss what we learned about the challenges applicants face when trying to submit verification documents and how we are helping applicants to overcome them.

We took a multi-method approach to learning about our applicants’ challenges. First, to understand how applications are processed, we interviewed and shadowed county workers in eligibility, intake, records management, and imaging across the state. Second, we interviewed hundreds of applicants on the phone after their cases had been approved or denied. Third, we ran surveys about interviews, verifications, and the process overall. Fourth, our client success team provided us with added perspective from thousands of applicant support chats, emails and texts sent to us throughout the enrollment process. Finally, we linked outcome data from counties to application data in order to build quantitative models of what factors help and hurt applicants’ chances of approval.

Barriers uncovered

We identified a web of barriers applicants face when trying to submit verifications:

  1. Applicants need easier means of submitting verification documents. Traditionally, many of the ways to provide verifications require a fax machine or scanner.
  2. Applicants need time to gather verifications. It can take time to find verifications, such as pay stubs, rent or mortgage payments, or medical bills. If the applicant needs a caseworker to help clarify what exactly is required, the back and forth of phone calls and voicemails can lead to further delays.
  3. Applicants require greater clarity about what circumstances need verification and what documents count as verification. Even if they know they need a certain type of verification, they don’t know what counts as a valid verification. If applicants do not have certain types of documents (like a passport), they may not know what alternatives they can submit. This is especially a problem before they talk to their eligibility worker.
  4. Applicants want to know what circumstances they have and have not verified. Depending on how they submit verifications, some applicants may not receive confirmation of receipt. Many applicants also want greater certainty earlier in the process about what verifications they need to submit. Finally, applicants want to know if the documents they have submitted count as legitimate verification of their circumstances.
  5. Applicants need easier ways to verify when someone who is difficult to reach holds the verification documents. This includes proof of job termination, letters from a school representative, or children’s birth certificates that might be held by an estranged spouse. The more distant the relationship, the more difficult these critical documents can be to obtain.

Based on these barriers, GetCalFresh focused on five goals around verifications:

  1. Provide an easy way to submit verifications
  2. Encourage applicants to submit verifications at their convenience before the interview
  3. Provide applicants with personalized verification guidance
  4. Reduce applicant uncertainty throughout the process
  5. Reduce verifications that applicants have to obtain from others

Provide an easy way to submit verifications

“I simply don’t have a way to get my paper documents onto my computer.”

CalFresh applicants can generally submit their verifications in several ways:

  1. Mail
  2. Fax
  3. In-Person
  4. Online (via MyBenefitsCalWIN or C4Yourself)
  5. Email

We offer different submission methods to meet applicants where they are, but each method presents specific trade-offs. Mailing and submitting through MBCW or C4Yourself requires a scanner or transferring photos from a camera to a computer. Faxing requires a fax machine. Submitting verifications in person requires the time and ability to get to the county office.

Easy smartphone uploads

After building the initial GetCalFresh application, our next priority was making it easy to submit verifications with a smartphone. A 2017 PEW research study shows that 77% of adults in the US own a smartphone, with higher ownership rates among younger as compared with older adults. The same PEW study found that 64% of households with earnings of less than $30,000 a year own a smartphone. This suggests that the majority of those eligible for CalFresh have access to a device that allows them to scan (i.e., take a picture) and send documents to the county.

We minimize the number of steps required to submit verification documents. Applicants can submit documents on GetCalFresh.org without logging in or downloading an app. In fact, we see that more than 60% use a mobile device to submit their initial application via GetCalFresh. Currently 47% of our applicants upload at least one document through GetCalFresh at some point. 34% of them do it along with their application, while 18% return later to submit documents (at www.getcalfresh.org/docs). We are working to bring these numbers even higher.

Enable applicants to submit verifications before the interview

“I was applying from a cafe and needed time to go home gather my documents.”

Applicants who submit verifications early have a higher chance of approval

Counties and CBOs have repeatedly told us that applications submitted with all the necessary verifications are more likely to be approved. Reviewing outcomes data for more than 12,000 applications from six counties, we found that including at least three verification documents with an initial application was associated with a 20% increase in an applicant’s likelihood of approval.¹

Our qualitative research helps explain these results. In our interviews and observations of eligibility workers, we found that submitting more verifications before the interview could:

  • Allow eligible applicants to be approved by the time of the interview (and thus get benefits quicker)
  • Reduce enrollment drop-offs by reducing the amount of action and communication required after the interview

Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between predicted probability of approval and number of verification documents submitted. It also shows how applicant circumstances are tied to likelihood of approval. While applicants in all circumstances appear to benefit from submitting more documents with their application, single seniors have the strongest chances overall, followed by a single adult under age 60, followed by a household of four (without seniors).

Figure 1: Number of verification documents submitted with GetCalFresh application and predicted probability of approval

What are the barriers to submitting verifications early?

We wanted to know what the barriers were to applicants not submitting verifications earlier. Survey responses from over 200 applicants in October 2017 indicated that:

  • 32% could not submit verifications at the time because they were busy or did not have the documents on-hand
  • 28% didn’t have a smartphone (or scanner if uploading with computer) or did not feel technically savvy enough
  • 27% did not understand the general categories of verifications they needed to submit or, if they did, what counted as valid verifications
  • 8% said that the county already had their verifications on hand (perhaps they were reapplying or already submitted documents while applying for other benefits)

Our 35-day survey about application outcomes asks why applicants did not submit documents and corroborates these findings. 27% of applicants who did not submit documents said that they could not get or send documents and 24% said that they were confused about what they needed to submit (698 respondents). We are working on some major changes to address these issues.

Verification reminders

Our documents survey showed that nearly one in three applicants who do not upload any verifications with their application are either too busy or do not have the documents with them. We wanted to enable applicants to submit documents later, once they found their verification documents and had a few minutes. A clear solution is to let applicants submit verifications after the application and remind them to do so as soon as possible.

In February, we ran an experiment in which we found that reminders soon after the application do help. We randomly divided 9,000 applicants into three groups: 1) receive no next-day reminder, 2) opt-in to receive a next-day reminder, and 3) automatically receive a next-day reminder.² Our results showed that applicants in the auto-remind group were almost 50% more likely to submit additional documents within the first two days of applying as compared to the other two groups. Given the improvement yielded by sending applicants a next-day reminder message, we are implementing this feature for everyone.

Figure 2: Encouraging clients to submit verifications early

Better Off-boarding

We know that not all applicants can submit their verifications online. 16% of our applicants say they do not own a smartphone (or could not scan documents to their computer) and 12% expressed that they were not comfortable using their smartphone or computer to upload documents. We provide applicants who don’t submit online with information about other ways to submit verifications to their county prior to their interview.

Provide applicants with personalized verification guidance earlier

“I sent more than enough documents required and I keep getting more stuff to send. I have a kid and am unemployed and I am in need of assistance, but all I keep getting is the runaround.”

Lack of understanding about what is required is a significant barrier for applicants who do not submit verifications before the interview. As noted above, our 35-day applicant survey showed that at least 27% of applicants who didn’t submit verifications needed help figuring out what to submit. It is likely that this number is actually higher since applicants may not be aware of all of the factors that contribute to eligibility and require verification.

Historically, our strategy has been to let the eligibility worker provide document guidance during the interview. Yet, our research surfaced that this approach had its downsides:

  • Some applicants stated they did not receive a “Request for Verifications” notice
  • Some applicants have stated they do not have enough time to gather verifications (especially if their interview is close to the 30-day enrollment deadline)
  • After the interview, many applicants still have questions around verifications and may find it hard to get back in touch with their case worker
  • After the interview, applicants often find it difficult to confirm that the county has received verifications they’ve sent or if there are additional verifications needed

Given the uncertainties and difficulties of submitting documents after the eligibility interview, we asked whether we could provide applicants with guidance about verifications earlier in the process.

Feature: In-app verification guidance

We researched CalFresh regulations, worked with local food banks, and talked to eligibility workers about questions they ask during the interview to determine which verifications an applicant needs. From this, we prototyped a script of about 10 easy to answer yes/no questions that give us better insight into applicants’ situations and what verifications they would need. We found compelling evidence that we could cover the majority of verifications. Broadly, the logic followed as:

  1. Provide IDs for adult household members
  2. If working, show proof of earned income
  3. If recently lost a job, show proof of lost job
  4. If receiving other income, show proof of unearned income
  5. If paying for housing, show proof of housing expenses
  6. If mixed-immigration, show proof of immigration status
  7. If paying for child support, show proof of child support payment
  8. If elderly/disabled and has medical expenses, show proof of medical expenses
  9. If eligible student, show class schedule and proof of their student exemption

Applicants submitting more documents with early personalized guidance

By asking these questions and breaking up the verification upload section into separate categories with detailed examples of what to upload, we saw a 20% increase in the number of applications with at least one verification since Sept. 2017. Among applicants who upload verifications with their application, the average number of verifications submitted has increased by 29%. Among all applicants, the average number of verifications per household member increased by 64%. As of late February, 2018, over 45,000 applicants have opted to use the verification guidance feature.

We think giving personalized guidance on verifications can help more applicants be approved by the interview, letting eligibility workers focus their time on more complex cases and applicants who are harder to verify. The data will also help us to refine how we help applicants with verification.

Figure 3: Examples of GetCalFresh verification guidance

Reduce applicant uncertainty throughout the process

“There’s a lack of communication between the program and the applicant. I have no idea if my documents have been received, or if my application was accepted.”

The quote above reflects one of the most common complaints we hear from applicants. They feel that the county can be unresponsive, and that they are left in the dark about their case until it is too late. Ideally, if an applicant can get their verifications submitted before the interview, this uncertainty can be reduced during the interview. Yet, many applicants are still unable to do so. We developed a feature within GetCalFresh to help ensure that they receive assistance and encouragement in submitting a complete application.

Feature: 25 day survey

We are setting up a 25 day text/email survey in which we ask applicants if they have had their interview and submitted all of the verifications requested. If they say no, we will direct them to a real person who can help them.

Reduce verifications that applicants have to get from others

“I pay my rent in cash and have no physical receipts of it. I cannot prove my supplemental cash as it is through tutoring and babysitting. And I just started my work study job so I don’t have any paytsubs yet.”

Feature: Help applicants to self-attest

Many applicants couldn’t submit verification because they didn’t have what was asked of them and didn’t know an alternative. For example, they lost their ID, didn’t have pay stubs, or rent/utility bills were not in their name. We are planning to test features that help applicants identify alternatives when they don’t have access to the exact verifications asked of them.

Working together to remove barriers

SNAP’s promise to help eligible people is only as good as its implementation. We believe if we play our part to get more applicants to the interview with full verifications, then it can free up time for the county to give more attention to those who have more complicated circumstances and require additional help. We do our best on the GetCalFresh team to assist applicants from the outside but there is only so much we can do on our own. We cannot move the needle without insights and energy from talented thinkers and doers inside government.

If you are interested in hearing more about our work or talking to us about future partnerships, email us at hello@getcalfresh.org.

¹ This reflects the average difference in predicted probability of approval if applicants submitted 3 documents versus 0 documents. We controlled for county, household size, monthly gross income, application month, applicant age, having a disabled member of the household, having a 60+ member of the household, having a student in the household, number of children in the household, in-person vs. telephone interview preference, whether the applicant had stable housing, and whether the application received help from a CBO. These data are observational and the results should be treated as suggestive rather than causal.

² In the 48 hours following application submission, 22.6% of applicants in the automatically-remind group had uploaded at least one document using our later document submission feature, as compared with 15.2% of applicants in the no-reminder condition and 15.6% of applicants in the opt-in condition (p<.001). When combined with documents submitted with the application, the percentage of applicants in the auto-remind group who had uploaded at least one document within 48 hours was 49.4% vs. 44.7% in the opt-in group and 45.3% in the no-reminder group (p<.001).