One Degree’s Common App: Giving Families Their Time Back

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Sarah is a mother of two, who works hard as a caregiver to support her children as well as her elderly mother. Sarah is the one who seeks out the social services she and her family rely on. It isn’t easy. In fact, it can feel like a part-time job, as she spends her hours between jobs in waiting rooms and lobbies at various social service agencies.

That’s because the process of applying for vital programs is clunky, outdated, and time-consuming. Programs require families like Sarah’s to submit the same information across many forms over and over again. They require documentation that can be hard to locate or keep track of. Families might be asked to travel to several offices. This is a merciless pile-on for people already struggling — juggling multiple jobs, dealing with food insecurity, lack of healthcare, or caring for children or elderly relatives. It’s a frustrating and demoralizing chore.

Sarah relayed her experience applying for CalFresh, California’s food stamps program. “I have to bring my mom, who’s 80,” Sarah said. “We have to wait in line sometimes for an hour.” What’s more, some programs require periodic renewal, meaning recipients must complete “recertification” applications to continue benefits. All told, low-income families spend as many as 20 hours per week researching, finding, and traveling to agencies just to get the services they need.

It’s no wonder that more than $65 billion in public benefits go unused every year.

This burden carried by our most vulnerable families is starting to get the attention it deserves. In a recent NPR interview about challenges his foundation might work to address in the U.S., Bill Gates spoke of “The complexity of how a poor person has to deal with housing, health and education authorities, filling out different forms…” He goes on to say “These systems are well-meaning, but it’s hard for people, particularly when they’re facing a crisis, to get what’s needed.”

What Mr. Gates and others should know is that the technology we need to streamline all this is literally in our hands.

We can use our phone to order groceries from Amazon, call a Lyft, or order up a dog walker or baby sitter. But low-income families are forced to contend with 1980s tech to get food, shelter, and other basic necessities. The human cost in time and energy is staggering.

And those inefficiencies spread across the entire system — staffers at agencies waste hours shepherding their clients through the process. They are swimming upstream, too, managing an impossible caseload using outdated technology. They can’t solve this problem alone.

The thing that keeps us up at night is that this system is failing the vulnerable people who rely on it the most.

Over the last five years, One Degree has been building technology to get vital social service resources into the hands of those who need them. That process of getting help ought to be as easy as placing an Amazon.com order. So far, One Degree has focused on making information about resources more accessible to families. We think we’ve proven that our model works and is valuable to those seeking help, with over 250,000 people having used our platform to find resources. But that’s not enough. The next step is to ensure low-income families relying on One Degree actually use those resources to build a path out of poverty.

That’s why we developed a prototype called the Common Application (or Common App), an online tool that combines multiple applications into one, and then submits the applications directly to agencies.

Before diving into how we built it, it’s important to know that One Degree builds technology in close partnership with the community. Before we started building Common App, we spent time understanding the application processes. We interviewed applicants (community members) to understand their experience, including barriers and frustrations. We also interviewed frontline caseworkers and agency directors to gain a deeper understanding of their intake steps. The outcomes from those discussions guided our initial prototype designs.

Real-World Testing

In partnership with San Francisco Human Services Agency, Children’s Council, and San Francisco Recreation & Parks, we tested the Common App prototype with 29 low-income families applying for agency support.

With traditional offline methods of applying (i.e. in-person or over the phone), it takes an applicant on average:

As a result, applicants would spend about two hours applying for all three programs. And most applicants spend at least an one hour of travel time to and from a physical site in order to apply for benefits.

However, using Common App, participants applying for:

  • 2 programs took an average of 29 minutes
  • 3 programs took an average of 32 minutes
Participants using Common App can save 1 hour to 2.5 hours compared to the traditional offline method.

This estimate does not include the time saved gathering documents for each program application — anywhere from one to five hours. That’s because with Common App, documents are uploaded only one time and then we submit them for each program.

Many of our participants said they were discouraged by previous attempts to apply for these programs, but that Common App was so easy that it made them want to apply for even more.

After trying the Common App, Sarah was also enthusiastic, “This is really, really good and really effective. It saves me from having to duplicate applications. We need this for recertification; it would save so much time.”

Next Steps: Ready to Scale

Our approach as an organization is to always build tools that can eventually scale, even if they start as a prototype. We considered the viability of scaling the tool as a required measure of success from the outset. One Degree is continuing to refine the prototype based on community feedback, and we plan to roll out the Common App more broadly in 2018. Here’s how:

Expand Common App into more communities. We’ll find local partner organizations to add their applications, and combine them with relevant state or county applications in one Common App for new regions.

Increase the number of programs available. We know there are other programs that are in high demand by low-income families. We will start by adding Medi-Cal and other statewide programs, and then identify the programs that have the biggest impact on low-income help-seekers and add those applications.

Integrate the Common App into One Degree’s core platform (1degree.org). The Common App is only useful if people can find and use it. We will promote the Common App to the existing 1degree.org membership, encouraging individuals to apply to relevant programs. We envision a seamless integration of Common App, whereby people could launch into the application process right from our main site. This will dramatically shorten the distance for our members between discovering vital services and enrolling in them.

Imagine millions of low-income families being able to apply for the array of major poverty-fighting resources — food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, child care programs — in one step, anywhere across the country. This is our vision.

The nonprofit sector often talks about helping families build a “path” out of poverty. With the Common App, we are trying to make that path more of a direct route. That’s why we do this work, building technology with the power to transform the social safety net at scale. With this Common App prototype, we’ve demonstrated the possibilities.

We are so grateful for our supporters that made this work possible, including a generous gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

We also want to thank our partners for their help during the prototype phase:

(NOTE: The privacy of One Degree members is paramount to any solution that requires soliciting and storing personally identifiable information. All user information collected in the Common App is stored in our HIPAA-compliant platform.)