We need a ‘universal application’ for crucial public benefits
Let's streamline the bureaucracy for those most in need
THIS MONTH MARKS two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many of us begin to embrace the new “near-normal,” too many individuals and families still struggle. The pandemic increased financial hardships for families that were already struggling before it hit. Indeed, Massachusetts has seen one of the largest percent increases in food insecurity in the nation since the pandemic began. Housing and childcare costs are also rising dramatically, and heating oil alone is up by more than 40 percent in the last year.
The common application – a platform where people can fill out one application and use that single application to apply for multiple benefits at the same time – is a long overdue step to ease some of the burden for the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents. Bureaucratic obstacles should not stand in the way of fuel assistance, food, childcare, health, and other crucial benefits for eligible low-income residents. It is our responsibility to ensure that those in need can access the full range of resources as easily as possible.
The Massachusetts Legislature took steps in past budgets to assist low-income residents in response to ease the burden and streamline the process of securing benefits. Specifically, each budget required the Baker Administration to allow residents applying for the MassHealth or Medicare Savings Program or renewing their application also to use their application to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) nutrition benefits at the same time. (The eligibility requirements for each largely mirror each other.)
This action was important because over 600,000 Massachusetts residents enrolled in MassHealth are eligible for nutrition benefits from SNAP but do not receive them. SNAP is 100 percent federally funded and is the most effective anti-hunger program in the country. The SNAP program also has proven to be one of the most effective tools to stimulate economic recovery and growth in times of recession. Massachusetts can neither afford to have economically struggling individuals not receive nutrition assistance, nor afford to leave these federal dollars sitting on the table.
We appreciate that the Administration is now taking concrete steps to combine healthcare and nutrition benefits. The next logical step is an accessible method for low-income consumers to apply for all the core benefits they need including WIC, fuel assistance, childcare, housing, cash assistance, Veterans Services benefits, and SNAP and healthcare using one application. For anyone living in poverty, these are increasingly challenging times. Furthermore, the cost of living continues to rise, we face unprecedented inflation levels increase, and benefits are difficult to access and renew in many cases.
President Biden recently issued an executive order at the federal level, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. This is intended to improve customer service, rebuild trust in government, put the public first, and ensure there is “no wrong door” for low-income individuals and families. The Commonwealth is well equipped to make this a reality for our citizens. In recent years, for example, the Baker administration has streamlined the RMV and created a single portal for business loans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts has been a leader in the past, and now is the time for us to lead again and ensure that our residents have access to basic needs benefits that are otherwise available to them as easily as possible.
We are proud of our progress to date, but we are not done yet. The next step is establishing the common application as part of the Commonwealth’s plan for an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. An accessible single common application is the final step to help our state’s most vulnerable residents meet all their basic needs for nutrition, income assistance, shelter, childcare, and healthcare. This is a time to reassure our residents – particularly our most vulnerable individuals and families – that the state is here for them, improve their quality of life, and ensure they can access all the available resources to assist them in getting back on their feet.Sal DiDomenico, a Democratic state senator from Everett, and Jay Livingstone, a Democratic state representative from Boston, are lead sponsors of S.761/H.1290, legislation to create a common application for social benefits.