Moving Toward Automatic Benefits in New York City

On Tuesday, GovLab’s director, Professor Beth Simone Noveck, appeared at a hearing of the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare to provide expert testimony in support of a bill aimed at easing the process of applying for public benefits. This bill, entitled “Notification of Public Assistance Eligibility,” was introduced originally in 2015 by Councilmember Ben Kallos to address the hurdles faced by New Yorkers in need of public assistance. Currently, applications for SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, Cash Assistance and various other benefits range from ten to fifteen pages each. These applications ask for much of the same information, including income information, household composition and living arrangements, but each in slightly different ways. This bill would require the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) to provide (either online or by mail) current recipients of any public benefits application forms for other benefits for which they should qualify. These forms would be pre-filled with any existing relevant information the HRA has on the recipient. In addition, the bill requires that renewal applications be provided to beneficiaries pre-filled so that if there are no changes, it allows for an easier renewal process.

Prof. Noveck, who served as Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States during the Obama administration, has previously written about automatic benefits and collaborated in 2015 with Councilmember Kallos on a memorandum that outlined the possibility of streamlining the enrollment process for public benefits nationwide in order to decrease the burden on applicants. That memorandum illustrated how data sharing across agencies is common and can simplify the application process.

In her testimony, Noveck stated that, if enacted, the bill has the potential to help New Yorkers most in need of public assistance receive the benefits for which they are eligible. She cited, as an example, that there are at least 600,000 New York City residents who are eligible for SNAP but do not receive it. She also explained that other jurisdictions have made significant progress in the effort to streamline applications for benefits.  For example, the states of Louisiana and South Carolina are able to enroll people in Medicaid automatically using their SNAP data, and both these states have been able to reduce administrative costs as a result of their programs. Most importantly, Professor Noveck emphasized that this bill would only be the first step towards a broader goal. In the ideal scenario, people would automatically be registered for all the benefits for which they are eligible just by filing their taxes or applying for one benefit.

After this hearing, the committee and Councilmember Kallos will review the testimony and determine whether changes need to be made to the bill. Subsequently, a date will be set for a vote, hopefully before the end of the year.

Professor Noveck’s full testimony can be found here.