Overcoming Barriers: Setting expectations for CalFresh eligibility

By Eric Giannella and Norris Hung

One of the goals of GetCalFresh has always been to make it as easy as possible to apply for CalFresh, since that first step can sometimes be the hardest. Like other outreach organizations, GetCalFresh tries to make eligibility requirements clear to our applicants and set the right expectations about the enrollment process.

In studying the reasons behind GetCalFresh application denials, we found that a sizable share of applicants were over the income limits to be eligible for CalFresh benefits. We saw that applicants were struggling to accurately respond to income questions and wanted to find out why. Our two key findings were:

  1. A broad question that required calculations encouraged guesstimating that often led to understated incomes.
  2. Without specific prompting and examples, it was easy for applicants to overlook key sources of unearned income.

Individuals who are unlikely to be eligible because of their income should find out early in the application process so they can begin seeking other food assistance, even if they still want to submit an application through GetCalFresh.

In this post, we’ll discuss user-centered research we’ve done into setting eligibility expectations and some of the resulting changes we’ve made to GetCalFresh. We believe these changes will result in better outcomes for our applicants and county partners.

Why GetCalFresh is focusing on income eligibility

Every month, GetCalFresh.org helps Californians submit roughly 15,000 applications for food assistance. Of these, we estimate that about 15% are being denied due to income ineligibility. We send a survey to all applicants roughly one month after they apply; over the course of a year, the most commonly cited reason for denial was being over the gross or net income limits. 30.2% of 1,103 denied respondents said they were denied because their income was too high (Figure 1).

We received corroboration of these results from one of our partner counties. County staff took a random sample of 400 denied GCF applications and read the eligibility case notes to determine the primary reason each was denied. The most common reason was being over income limits, making up about 30% of all denials (and closely matching the results of our applicant survey responses).

These data points left us quite confident that denials based on income are a major issue for GetCalFresh applicants.

Figure 1: Denial Reasons Mentioned by GetCalFresh Applicants on 35-day Enrollment Survey

Based on 1,235 reasons given by 1,103 denied respondents (as of March 2018)

Other data bolstered our impression that applicants struggle to provide accurate income information. GetCalFresh asks applicants to enter their income at two points: during the initial eligibility check and later in the application. Over one-third of applicants were revising their income between the eligibility check and the application (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Income questions at two points in the GetCalFresh application

Over 60% of these income revisions were greater than $250, and some differed by over $1,000. Importantly, the greater the difference between the two amounts, the more likely an applicant was to be denied (Figure 3).*

Figure 3: Predicted probability of approval by income discrepancy

To sum up: Feedback from applicants and counties, as well as analyses of available data, suggested that we could do more to help applicants determine their income. Having a better sense of their income would also give applicants more realistic expectations about their eligibility, and possibly encourage them to seek out other resources like local food banks.

How we currently set eligibility expectations

Until recently, GetCalFresh applicants would answer a few basic questions to get a rough sense of their eligibility, with the primary goal of letting applicants who are extremely likely to be ineligible know that they may not qualify. In reviewing eligibility, we ask about household size and income; student, disabled, senior, and immigration status; and whether anyone in the household receives SSI/SSP (Figure 3). We heavily bias our process toward encouraging individuals to apply and we even tell people who do not appear to meet requirements that they can still apply (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Eligibility Checks in the GetCalFresh Application

Currently, our basic eligibility check asks about household size, rough income, and common special requirements. If a user does not meet basic eligibility criteria, it explains what these are, but allows the user to apply anyway.

What accounts for income-based denials in GetCalFresh applications?

Cesar Paredes, our applicant support specialist, doing in-person prototyping at a UC Berkeley CalFresh clinic.

GetCalFresh data showed that few applicants report incomes over the gross income limit. The trouble is that many applicants were understating their incomes. We sought to understand why and conducted 50 phone interviews with people who were denied due to income reasons.

Each person helped us identify a specific reason why they were denied. Analyzing and grouping these stories, we encountered three main causes for the income denials:

  1. Applicants may omit secondary/unearned income sources.
  2. Applicants may calculate gross monthly income inaccurately.
  3. For some applicants, our guidance on net income is incomplete.

How GetCalFresh is improving its accuracy for income eligibility

Improvement 1: To reduce omission of income sources, the GetCalFresh application will improve guidance on unearned income

We found that one of the most common reasons for income denials was when applicants did not consider “unearned” income sources (i.e., not from a job) as part of their monthly income. In our applicant interviews, some of the common omissions we heard included:

  • Military Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)
  • Veteran Benefits
  • Disability
  • Money received from a friend or relative
  • Worker’s Compensation
User testing at the Richmond WIC office.

In GetCalFresh’s basic eligibility check, we asked applicants “Roughly, how much money did you get in the last 30 days?” Many applicants took this to mean only their primary earned income source. Other sources might account for hundreds to thousands of dollars of income, and omissions often made the difference between being under versus over the eligibility limits.

We took some ideas that we generated and tested paper prototypes with a dozen individuals across college campuses, WIC offices, and HSA offices. A critical observation during user-testing was that most people spent a lot of time thinking about the income question. When asked to talk through their thought process, many explained that they were trying to calculate their monthly income based on how much and how often they got paid. For many, unearned income did not even enter the equation. Even when we asked about unearned income as its own separate category, many users did not recall unearned income streams until prompted by examples.

We redesigned our questions about income to separate the cognitive tasks of thinking about earned and unearned income. In addition, we wanted to list many of the most common examples of unearned income to help jog memories and educate applicants about what counts as unearned income.

Figure 6: Improved guidance for unearned income

GetCalFresh encourages applicants to think about unearned income sources and provide common examples.

Improvement 2: To capture earned income more accurately, the GetCalFresh application will change the way it asks for earned income

The second most common reason we saw for income denials was inaccurate earned income. We observed a few reasons for this:

  • Despite asking for pre-tax income, many applicants enter their take-home pay instead of gross pay.
  • Applicants commonly underestimate weeks in a month when making mental calculations.
  • The language we used appears to have prompted many people to guesstimate their income amounts. Many rounded to $500, $1000, $1500, $2000, or $2500.

To improve the accuracy of earned income data, we now encourage applicants to enter income from a pay stub they have handy or calculate it based on their hourly wage. Doing a rough estimate is presented as a last resort.

Figure 7: Improved guidance for earned income

By asking applicants about their income in ways they understand, we simplify the application for the user and get more accurate answers. Testing with applicants and feedback from CBOs have shown that asking for their hourly pay is the easiest way to calculate pre-tax income.

Improvement 3: To more accurately capture net income, the GetCalFresh application will offer personalized net deduction guidance

For applicants who fall below the gross income limit but do not clearly fall below the net income limit, we intend to offer more guidance by asking a few questions around deductions that apply to them. Factors we will take into consideration include:

  • Housing expenses
  • Child/dependent care costs
  • Medical expenses for elderly/disabled household members
  • Self-employment

Figure 8: Improved guidance for net income

For applicants who are not clearly under the net income limit, we ask additional questions to more accurately calculate their net income. As with the other improvements, we start with a series to simple yes/no questions to only ask the income/expenses relevant to the specific household.

A better approach to eligibility

GetCalFresh’s mission has always been to facilitate people getting the help they need. We focus a lot of our work on getting applicants through enrollment but it’s just as important to empower people with clearer expectations about their eligibility.

Our product philosophy has not changed: a short and easy application that applicants can complete without an assister. We believe this new approach improves upon our easy and plain-language application by providing more accurate expectations about eligibility. We’ll monitor how these changes improve outcomes and the overall experience for our applicants and county partners. In a future post, we’ll present those results.

Questions? Email hello@getcalfresh.org


* Figure 3 shows the predicted probability of approval based on the size of the income discrepancy, holding other factors constant. The model to generate these predictions was fit using approximately 24,000 outcomes and controlled for factors such as age, income, household size, county, number of documents submitted, number of children, and student, senior, or disabled status.