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Perspective: America needs one-stop shops for benefits like Welfare Square

People in need shouldn’t have to navigate a complex and sprawling system without help

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Silos at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, are seen on May 31, 2016.

Welfare Square silos are seen in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 31, 2016. People who need government assistance would benefit from a similar central distribution center.

Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

After months of debate, President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion investment in human infrastructure — cut down from a proposed $3.5 trillion — has passed in the House of Representatives. It moves now to the Senate, where it’s likely to be trimmed more. 

Massive new investments can only improve lives if we put benefits in the hands of people who need them, right? That currently does not happen. 

Consider a single mother of three living in Santa Clara, Utah, and working full time for $24,000 a year. She may be eligible for as many as 22 federal and state benefits but, like many Americans, may never access all of them.

She would have to go to four buildings, spread across 10 miles, to access just a few of the services. And it’s no better in Champaign County, Illinois, from where we write, with four buildings across 7 miles. 

Americans might consult Benefits.gov online, but the website is unwieldy and sometimes inaccurate. Figuring things out online also requires reliable internet access — which 21 million Americans still don’t have. True, the $65 billion for broadband access in the new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will help across the next decade, but needs are great now. 

Because government benefits are so complicated, people are falling through the cracks. Pre-COVID-19, fewer than 1 in 4 children entitled to child care subsidies received them. Rural Americans, the elderly and people of color are not as likely to claim benefits to which they are entitled. And 8.8 million people who qualify for Medicaid are not enrolled, 60% of whom are minorities. 

People often do not know that they qualify for benefits, or when they do know, they struggle to afford the time off work, child care or transportation to make it to multiple agencies during business hours.

People cannot navigate these services alone.

The government should look to Welfare Square in downtown Salt Lake City, a landmark location for helping those in need. The federal government and states should create Benefits Depots: one-stop shops for accessing government benefits efficiently and easily. These depots would provide a physical place for people to reach the services they need. They would house all programs, with a knowledgeable employee to walk citizens through services — like a personal shopper for government benefits.

COVID-19 has pushed us to innovate. Takeout food has become more widespread and accessible thanks to Uber Eats and other services. If Uber can do this, governments can, too. Mobilizing services and pooling resources are not new concepts. 

Like Welfare Square, which is accessible by public transportation, Benefits Depots should be located centrally in easily accessible locations where people congregate: next to bus stops, houses of worship, post offices, stores or food banks. And they can be strategically located in historically underserved areas to better serve those in need. 

The government could roll out a fleet of mobile depots — call them Benefits Buses — to serve harder-to-reach groups such as homeless people or rural communities. 

Other countries have figured this out. Service Canada provides a single access point to government services such as Old Age Security, Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan and passports. Canadians navigate a single website or make a phone call to access all government benefits. There are also in-person Points of Service, visited by over 33,625 Canadians each day who report an 83% satisfaction rate.

Of course, things are more challenging in the U.S. partly because social safety net programs are administered at the state level. But this is why states should play a key role. Models exist. 

In Wisconsin, Aging and Disability Resource Centers provide a physical place for people to access and learn about services they qualify for within a maze of programs. Concentrating expertise about the available safety nets makes sense.

Some states like Illinois take a No Wrong Door approach, meaning residents can walk into any agency and ask for help. But, benefits policies require deep expertise, so workers at the department of motor vehicles may be just as confused about Medicare benefits as the person looking for help. To be effective, a Benefits Depot has to be staffed with experts. 

The federal government recognized this recently. Relatives raising children now receive Kinship Navigators to guide them through complicated programs and benefits. 

In 2019, Chicago’s Mobile City Hall came to parks and schools to serve residents who need things like pet licenses and parking permits. Helping people comply with regulations benefits the city.

Private entities understand their self-interest in connecting people to benefits. Hundreds of hospitals and health care organizations sponsor medical-legal partnerships to help people access housing or child support.

Creating Benefit Depots will cost money. But investing in assistance to access benefits ultimately saves money in health care spending and social spending down the line. And it ultimately saves lives. Entitlement benefits like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance are essentially already paid for. If they’re not claimed, the government is throwing away money. Even in today’s fractured America, nobody wants to do that. 

America already spends $4 trillion on social supports, five times more than is spent on the military. Broadening safety nets through new investments — without consciously working to connect people to the services and benefits provided — invites reasonable fears about bloated, inefficient government and risks wasting resources.

Single points of access for government services will build trust in government, something in short supply in America. In 2020, only 36% of Americans reported feeling that the federal government does a good job of helping people out of poverty.  

Placing government benefits into the hands of the people in need expands on a commonsense approach, centrally locating help for those who may have trouble finding it. Taking care to connect people to government ensures that the giant investment all of us are making in human capital actually does some good.

Robin Fretwell Wilson holds the Mildred Van Voorhis Jones Chair in Law at the University of Illinois College of Law and is a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Elsa Zawedde is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois College of Law, and Becca Valek is a policy intern at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs.