In August, a few Northwoodians attended the American Public Human Services Association’s (APHSA) Economic Mobility and Well-Being Conference. From sessions on emerging from the pandemic, adapting policies and processes, and developing the workforce, a few themes emerged about where the industry is heading as “the unwinding” draws closer. Keep reading for some additional insight on each theme:
- Clients: Many households will soon see a significant drop in benefits, while costs continue to rise, putting them at risk of getting lost in the system
- Caseworkers: Staffing remains a problem, plus new workers who have never processed applications before COVID-19 will need training on how it's done
- Service providers: Agencies are relying more on nonprofits with greater flexibility to quickly provide services and resources to those who need them
- Industry leaders and partners: We’re all (still!) in this together and must continue to innovate on behalf of the communities who rely on our support
Theme #1: Benefits Will Soon Drop, While Costs Just Keep Rising
With the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) likely ending by the end of the year, it’s no surprise this topic was prevalent across the entire event.
When Medicaid continuous enrollment and SNAP emergency allotments expire, households of all shapes and sizes will see a significant drop in their benefits—all during a period of high inflation where the costs of necessities like food, utilities, shelter, and medicine continue to rise.
Presenters from various sessions provided insight into how certain communities have been affected by the pandemic already or will be once the unwinding begins. A few examples:
- Homeless, elderly, and disabled populations have been disproportionally more vulnerable to food insecurity and may continue to get left behind
- Black and Hispanic households have been experiencing greater food insufficiency
- The impact on households with high medical needs and associated costs will be significant
- Many families in rural areas are still considered high need because of barriers to employment (e.g., lack of job opportunities, training, or access to child care and other resources)
But the need isn’t limited to only these vulnerable populations. During an opening session on building a just and equitable food system, Carrie Calvert, Feeding America’s vice president of agriculture and nutrition government relations, said the organization has seen drastically increased demand and that 40% of people coming in had never needed food assistance before.
Speakers shared ways to make sure no one falls through the cracks when the unwinding begins, such as:
- Reduce the friction in confusing or complicated enrollment and re-certification processes
- Make sure resources are accessible to the people and communities who need them the most
- Educate and engage participants, as well as their advocates and assisters, around policies, procedures, and changes
- Leverage automation to handle manual, repetitive steps in bureaucratic processes so caseworkers can answer questions and guide clients
Representatives from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services shared information about four new waivers available to state agencies to support them through the unwinding. Our blog post, “When Eligibility Waivers Expire: 5 Steps to Prep Your Agency,” has additional advice and best practices to make sure agencies at the local level are also prepared to continue to serve clients without disruption.
Theme #2: Staffing Shortages, Turnover, and Training
Turnover and staffing shortages continue to impact economic assistance programs across the country at the local, state, and even federal levels. When the emergency ends, even more work will come in, but there won’t be enough workers to handle it all.
For example, during a discussion on avoiding benefit cliffs, one audience member cited developing their workforce as a major area of concern, as 30% of workers are new and 62% of workers are leaving within their first year. Another direct practice worker commented that they are processing applications as fast as they can, with more expectations on their level of thoroughness, and simply can’t keep up.
On top of this, many of the newer workers have never done things “the old way” and aren’t used to processing applications in “normal” times, which will increase the need for training. Remember these workers will expect simple, intuitive, easy-to-learn software to support their work (as will many clients who have never experienced applying for benefits when it wasn’t during a PHE).
We took note of some creative ways states and agencies are tackling recruitment and retention so they’re better prepared for the coming uptick in work:
- Creating path-to-employment initiatives that train people who have previously received services to become employees of the programs they participated in
- Creating a pipeline of local staff by establishing partnerships with community colleges
- Recruiting retired workers to come back to the agency on a contract basis
- Fostering connection for staff in rural areas through virtual peer communities where they can share best practices and engage in professional learning
- Sharing recruiting and training responsibilities and resources across programs and even across the public and nonprofit spaces
Agencies are also investing in robotic process automation (RPA), often referred to as bots, to help alleviate some of the administrative burdens on their caseworkers. For example, the state of Georgia talked about a “change bot” that extracts information from a PDF document received by the agency to update the case management system (think changes of phone number, address, or voter registration). The bot has saved workers 15 minutes per case from simply not having to re-key information.
Theme #3: Nonprofits Are Helping Fill Gaps in Service Delivery
Agencies have always benefited from developing a community sense of responsibility for protecting the health and well-being of vulnerable citizens. Over the past few years, community partnerships have become even more valuable as nonprofit partners play a key role in reaching and fostering relationships with clients who need support but may not trust government entities to provide it.
During a session on service delivery in rural communities, panelists noted how nonprofit partners often function as a bridge between communities and human services programs, helping to establish trust and cultural capital. Nonprofits can also be more flexible to circumvent funding constraints.
Here are some examples of successful agency/nonprofit partnerships from a session on aligning systems and providing holistic nutrition support:
- Kansas Department of Children and Families has partnered with Delivering Change, a maternal health nonprofit, to reach more mothers who may be eligible for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits. Delivering Change staff with lived experience build relationships with clients, educate them on resources available, and help refer them for support.
- Michigan Department of Health and Human Services partners with the Food Bank Council of Michigan to create a “no wrong door” approach for food assistance. People who apply for benefits through the state are also connected to local food resources, while people who come in through the food pantry can also be referred for benefits through the state. The goal is to meet people where they are to make sure they can access all the resources they need.
Theme #4: Working Together to Tackle Tough Problems
During some opening remarks, Anthea Seymour, economic security administrator for the D.C. Department of Human Services, spoke about how reimagining our systems in a meaningful way starts with building relationships with each other. Matt Lyons, APHSA’s acting senior director of policy & practice, echoed this same sentiment saying we can’t move forward without a clear roadmap. And we have to do it together.
Throughout the conference we heard examples of programs working collaboratively in ways they never have before to serve mutual clients as efficiently as possible across their workforces. For example, the Kansas DCF and Michigan DHHS examples above came from a panel where six jurisdictions shared how their SNAP and WIC programs (under totally separate government divisions) are sharing data to trigger automatic referrals between programs, lessen burdens on caseworkers, and increase families served.
It’s also worth noting here that attendees recognize the role technology can play in facilitating this collaborative future (in fact, “technology” was the top answer in a survey of attendees on the biggest changes needed in the next 10 years to achieve a just, equitable, and sustainable food system in the US). Technology, in addition to policy and practice, is how we can truly impact the most households.
We’ve said before that solving the human services industry’s key issues will take everyone working together—from agencies sharing ideas, best practices, and data in new ways, to nonprofits helping build relationships and trust, to vendors and consultants collaborating with one another on your behalf and as your partners. It was inspiring to hear stories of the entire industry working together to make sure every individual can access the resources they need to be successful, and to collectively create more effective and equitable systems of care.
If you work in economic assistance or are interested in diving into these key takeaways from the Economic Mobility and Well-Being Conference, we’d love to connect! Get in touch and let us know what you’re working on, how you’re preparing for the unwinding, and how we might help.
Director of Advocacy Laura Haffield and Product Marketing Manager Lauren Hirka contributed to this post.