As global unemployment rates continue to grow, people are looking to government for guidance, reassurance, and financial assistance. In the US, individuals who have recently lost their job or whose income has been impacted can apply for government benefits. But the application process for these benefits isn’t the easiest to navigate. Code for America is a non-profit group that has developed a digital tool to help people applying for benefits. Giving their clients an easy way to get support – via Intercom’s Business Messenger – is a key part of their solution.
Code for America sets out to work towards “a government by the people, for the people, that works in the 21st century.” Their goal is to make government services more accessible to the people they were built to serve. Their Marketing Director Jahvita Rastafari explains, “We believe that we can use the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how the government serves the American public and how the public improves the government.”
“Giving their clients an easy way to get support is a key part of their solution”
To do this, the Code for America team partners closely with local government to give people better access to public programs. The team has developed a broad range of digital tools and programs, from GetYourRefund.org, which assists with tax returns, to Clear My Record, which helps people clear eligible criminal records that often prevent them from finding work.
One of their programs, GetCalFresh.org, has been particularly impactful during the current crisis. It assists California residents with applying to CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Through CalFresh, residents get monthly benefits that they can use to buy food for their household. To date, GetCalFresh has helped over one million people secure benefits, processing more than 60,000 applications monthly.
Helping to put food on the table
With first-time unemployment at historic highs, the obstacles people face when applying for state benefits are being brought to the surface. Jahvita says, “Over 60% of applicants never had a need for any kind of government benefits, had no understanding of how to navigate them, and are experiencing unemployment for the first time.”
Source: Code for America
The spike in applications has naturally led to an increase in support questions that their team is receiving. Having seen a weekly average of 3,000 conversations come through their Intercom Messenger prior to the pandemic, Code for America’s two-person support team is now having to scale their efforts to support 8,400 incoming queries weekly, a nearly 3x increase. The team is now five-people strong, with several local food bank partners joining in to answer client questions.
Confusion around claiming benefits is a huge issue for people, based on the conversations that the team has had with their clients. This is driven largely by the fact that California’s government benefits are administered on a county-by-county basis, as opposed to at the state level. It makes finding the relevant resources and documentation a convoluted process.
“We’ve seen a lot of questions along the lines of, ‘Well, I’m furloughed and my boss is telling me that I have a job when this is all over, but I’m not getting a paycheck’”
To add to this, the team is noticing a lot of uncertainty as to whether or not people qualify for benefits at all given the rapidly evolving economic crisis. Jahvita explains, “We’ve seen a lot of questions along the lines of, ‘Well, I’m furloughed and my boss is telling me that I have a job when this is all over, but I’m not getting a paycheck.’”
The team feeds insights from these conversations back to the California Department of Social Services, which has oversight of CalFresh, so they can help move the needle on improving access to government benefits. Jahvita explains that this feedback loop is invaluable, saying it’s “something you don’t get with paper applications and people waiting in line.”
Support that feels personal and efficient
Code for America uses Intercom because it strongly believes in showing up with empathy for their clients. Many of their clients are under a great deal of stress and the Messenger is a simple way to reassure them that the team stands ready to help if they need it.
“Feeling like someone has your back is incredibly valuable when you’re dealing with trauma”
Using Intercom’s Inbox and bots, the team has been able to keep providing highly personal support during the Covid-19 crisis, despite the massive surge in conversation volume. The team uses Resolution Bot to offer instant self-serve support in English, Spanish, and Cantonese for frequently asked questions. This lets the team maintain a fast response time for more urgent queries that need immediate attention from someone on the team.
At the same time, the team strives to balance efficient support and personal interaction. For instance, people often reach out to ask for their case number or get an update on their application. The team can quickly look up the information and provide updates through the Intercom Messenger in a matter of seconds, saving people hours of time and enabling them to move on to the next stage of the process. They also take the time to say something as simple as “I can see that your case is pending,” just to reassure clients that there is a person on the other side of the conversation ready to support them. Jahvita says, “Feeling like someone has your back is incredibly valuable when you’re dealing with trauma.”
Making a difference
“It feels clear that making sure people can eat is important here”
The important work that Code for America is doing continues to impact the lives of tens of thousands of people, working endlessly to bridge the digital divide between government benefits and assistance programs and the people who need them most.
GetCalFresh is helping one in 10 individuals who receive CalFresh to put food on the table during these challenging times. As one client shared recently, “Thank you for making the website easy to navigate; it feels clear that making sure people can eat is important here.”