One of CAHS´biggest programs is EarnBenefits Online (EBO). The basic idea behind EBO is fairly simple: filling the paperwork to apply for public benefits in Connecticut is hard. The Department of Social Services has a staggering amount of forms on their website, most of them fairly confusing. The one application that allows clients to apply for all services (W1E) is an unwieldy 22 page monster with hundreds of questions. For a lot of people in need, this paperwork represents a gigantic entry barrier to the system. The result, a significant amount of families in need that are eligible for services never apply for them.
EBOfocuses on solving this problem. CAHS has build a network of 30 community organizations across the state that provide screenings and application assistance to clients, helping them find out what benefits that should apply for and helping them get the paperwork ready for DSS. EBO, the case management software at the core of the program, screens clients for 12 benefits and populates the necessary applications automatically, greatly speeding up the whole process. We are currently screening more than 300 households a month, bringing services to hard to reach populations that would have never gone to DSS otherwise.
The obvious question when talking about benefit assistance services is what difference do they make. Are clients more likely to get the benefits that if they applied on their own? Are we reaching people that would not have applied otherwise? A recent study by Betting, Long, Oreopoulus and Sanbonmatsu tries to answer this questions directly using a randomized study.
Their starting point was the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) program, a simple form that helps students find out if they are eligible to receive Federal student loans or grants to go to college. They divided their population in three: a control group that did not receive information about FAFSA, a group that received fliers and information explaining the program and finally a test group that received both the fliers and application assistance. After that, they compared the percentage of students that went to college the year after. The results were inmediate:
Grant applications climbed an astounding 40%, while college enrollment went up 23% just because a short conversation with a friendly screener. If we want to increase participation on a specific program it is an incredible return of investment; we are essentially sending 23% more students to college for the cost of 30 minutes of a case worker´s time.
Our experience with EBO is largely similar, although we are still combing through our data. Application success rates compared to regular outreach (passing fliers out) has almost doubled. We are closely working with the Department of Social Services to evaluate program results with more details, but all signs point that the FAFSA experiment´s results are not a fluke. We do application assistance because it works, and it works well, to make sure that the safety net is in place to catch all those who fall behind.