Report

Modernizing Access to the Safety Net

Lessons from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Grantees through the Covid-19 Pandemic

The social safety net in the United States is meant to not only give people in need the means to get by, but is an investment in a humane and productive society. However, access to the safety net remains a perennial problem. “Modernizing Access to the Safety Net: Lessons from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Grantees during the Covid-19 Pandemic” draws lessons from leading organizations and projects using data and technology to make the safety net more friendly, personalized, and respectful; realizing the vision of a safety net that actively offers help and builds value both for people in need and their communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic plunged millions of Americans into unemployment and food or housing insecurity in 2020. The pandemic exposed both how important access to the safety net truly is, but also how weak that access can be. For agencies tasked with administering benefits, the pandemic created a perfect storm of three simultaneous challenges: record high unemployment, historic demands on the system, and widespread office closures due to mandatory stay-at-home-orders, all hindering their ability to deliver services. 

The series of federal relief legislation enacted throughout 2020, particularly the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, expanded what benefits were available and who was eligible, helping millions of people and resulting in a reduction in the federal poverty rate through the summer of 2020. However, it was not enough: by December 2020, 19% of renters were behind on rent and 14% of Americans reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the previous week. 

Fortunately, innovators inside and outside of government are working to improve access to the social safety net, using data, technology, and design. They are replacing time-consuming, rigid, impersonal, and confusing processes with an active safety net that reaches out to offer help when it is needed, provides multiple ways to seek help, and responds to individual needs. 

This report highlights some of that innovation, including extraordinary efforts to meet the challenges of the pandemic, carried out by The Rockefeller Foundation’s Data and Technology grantees from 2018 to 2020. Those grantees are: Benefits Data Trust, Code for America, Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, U.S. Digital Response, and the Digital Innovation and Governance Initiative at New America. In 2020, these projects secured more than $200 million in benefits for close to 100,000 people across at least 36 states, and helped millions more through policy change, training, and guidance. 

The report also shares nine critical lessons that emerge from our grantees’ work. Each of the organizations and projects has deployed different strategies against different parts of the benefits access challenge, but the common themes surfaced point the way to the safety net that is more effective at reducing misery, insecurity, and inequality and promoting opportunity. We hope they will find strong and growing support in doing so.

  • Report

    Modernizing Access to the Safety Net

    The social safety net in the United States is meant to not only give people in need the means to get by, but is an investment in a humane and productive society. However, access to the safety net remains a perennial problem. “Modernizing Access to the Safety Net: Lessons from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Grantees during […]
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The social safety net is only effective if people can access it easily and when they need it. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated $65 billion in safety net benefits went unused by families each year that needed them in the United States. Covid-19 and its resulting disruptions have tested the capacity of states […]

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