By
Cindy Huddleston & Anne Swerlick
|
September 3, 2020

Let the Sunshine In: Families Need More Transparency, Better Communication from Agencies Administering Safety Net Programs  

Let the Sunshine In: Families Need More Transparency, Better Communication from Agencies Administering Safety Net Programs  

The COVID-19 pandemic puts the policy decisions of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) front and center in the effort to keep struggling Florida families afloat during the pandemic.[1]

These agencies have a sobering responsibility. Many of the more than 8 million Floridians who have lost income due to the pandemic are turning to safety net programs to make ends meet. Since March:

  • 700,000 more families have signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to put food on the table;
  • 400,000 more people have enrolled in Medicaid to get health care;
  • 14,000 additional families have accessed cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); and
  • 3 million Floridians have applied for Reemployment Assistance (RA) or federal unemployment.

In the best of times, it is critical for families to understand the rules that govern programs designed to help them get back on their feet. But getting clear and timely information to affected families is even more important during the pandemic.

This is because, in many cases, the eligibility requirements governing safety net programs during COVID-19 are changing monthly. To make it easier and safer for households to qualify during the public health emergency, federal agencies overseeing benefit programs will waive many of the requirements that ordinarily govern safety net eligibility.[2] In turn, state agencies, such as DCF and DEO, announce what waivers they are taking and what special COVID-19 modifications they are making to their normal eligibility criteria. Typically, state agencies that obtain waivers or modify policies for pandemic-related reasons do so for one or two months at a time and, ideally, announce either an extension of or end to these modifications before the date that they are due to expire.

But far too often during the pandemic, state agencies have not been forthcoming with information about policy changes. Instead of a clear and open line with Floridians about changes to safety net programs, state agencies time and again keep important information under wraps until long after the change has already been implemented, which makes it difficult for families to make reasoned decisions about their eligibility, decide whether particular programs will meet their needs, and plan accordingly.

Transparency Failures During COVID-19

Agency staff tasked with running safety net programs for affected households in Florida are working hard and doing many things right during the pandemic. For example, both DCF and DEO have initiated policy changes to the programs they administer to make it easier and safer for Floridians to access the help they need during the public health emergency. Each has developed COVID-19 resource pages and are using social media to alert Floridians about coronavirus policies.

But resource pages and social media blasts are only helpful if they provide up to date and comprehensive information. Despite DCF’s and DEO’s public-facing web pages and social media sites, Floridians are repeatedly either kept in the dark about important coronavirus information related to safety net programs or provided information in bits and pieces.

For example, Governor DeSantis directed DCF to suspend work requirements for SNAP and TANF through June 2020. The suspension of work requirements, which DCF announced on its COVID-19 web page, was a significant modification to DCF’s pre-pandemic policy. Under ordinary circumstances, safety net participants are required to engage in work activities up to 80 hours a month, depending on family composition and the type of benefits the family receives — otherwise, they lose assistance.

In many situations, households subject to work requirements must engage face to face with potential employers and others in the community to apply for jobs, go on interviews, and, eventually, go back to work if they find employment. For families relying on TANF, it forces parents who cannot work from home to send young children back to brick-and mortar schools instead of having them engage in distance learning — or risk loss of benefits for noncooperation, even if they have a family member whose age or health puts them at risk of becoming critically ill from exposure to an asymptomatic child.

Yet when July 1, 2020, came and went, DCF had still not updated its COVID-19 webpage to say whether the suspension of work requirements would be further extended. To make matters worse, despite their best efforts, neither lawmakers nor organizations that work with struggling families were able to get timely and consistent information from the agency about whether work requirements were going to be enforced again and, if so, how and when.

Because COVID-19 infections in Florida skyrocketed in July, this silence created uncertainty and stress among frightened families who worried about work requirements and their ability to safely comply.

It was not until mid-July, after public outcry over lack of transparency, that DCF announced that work requirements had already been re-imposed on participants as of July 1. However, DCF simultaneously announced that it had decided to walk back that decision.

Now it's September and DCF is once again leaving families in agonizing uncertainty about work requirements. Although Florida’s COVID-19 data is trending in the right direction, the same risks in statewide reimposition of work requirements persist. Indeed, recognizing the current “historic threat to public health,” the federal government has just ordered a nationwide halt on residential evictions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Yet DCF has neither updated its webpage nor responded to repeated requests for information about its plan to reimpose work requirements.

Why Transparency on Safety Net Programs is So Important

Clear and timely information about safety net programs is critical to affected families who need help putting food on the table, going to the doctor, or paying rent or a utility bill because they lost jobs due to COVID-19. Uncertainty about what programs are being considered for changes, what special policy changes already exist, and whether their family may be eligible creates stress, impacts a family’s ability to establish or maintain eligibility, and generates rumors which are often false or wildly exaggerated.  This is especially true during the pandemic, when lives are upended and millions of Floridians rely on safety net programs to survive.

Floridians should never be kept in the dark about important policies that affect them.

Ways for Florida Agencies to Better Disseminate Safety Net Program Information During COVID-19

The state should make transparency a priority. This means  open and timely communication with affected Floridians about policy reversals and changed expectations in safety net programs. . 

But it is also important that state agencies have a clear and dependable line of communication with organizations whose job it is to access, understand, and relay information to/advocate for families. Non-profits in Florida serve as both official and unofficial proxies[3] for state agencies when it comes to many of the safety net programs. Due to the state’s reliance on technology to communicate with applicants and recipients of safety net programs, it is often local organizations — not state agency staff — who sit across the table from families, help households apply for assistance, provide advice about policies, and cobble together information about various programs based on the family’s unique circumstances. The more that affected Floridians receive a consistent message from a variety of voices, such as from the agencies and community organizations, the more likely they will understand policies and, ultimately, access needed assistance.

Although some state agencies, such as DEO and DCF, have a webpage dedicated to pandemic-related information, that webpage should be updated in real time about COVID-19 policies in safety net programs. To navigate what, for many, is a new and unfamiliar system, families need to know what they must do to establish or maintain eligibility. Do they still need to have an in-person interview?  Have recertification deadlines been waived?  Are work requirements suspended? Not knowing what hurdles they may face only creates confusion, stress and uncertainty for families at the worst possible time.  Further, if state agencies catalogue policy changes in real time, they will cut down on the time of responding to individual requests for information.

This webpage should also let Floridians know if the agency has asked the federal government for permission to implement coronavirus policy changes and allow interested Floridians the ability to read the request. When the federal government responds, the agency should post an alert with a link to the decision.

If the agency is still exploring options, Floridians want to know that, too.

In addition, the webpage should provide a way for interested persons to provide input into agency proposals or decisions.

Each state agency should also have an information officer who is kept up to the minute on agency policies and empowered to provide immediate and unvarnished information to those who ask. One possibility is for agencies to use their Public Records custodian, who is already accustomed to receiving and responding to requests for information from the public, as an information officer. Contact information for the information officer should be prominent on the agency’s website and on social media.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that straightforward information, even if a final decision has not been made, goes a long way to alleviate fear and let families know whether any particular safety net program is available for their family and, if so, whether the program makes sense for them.

In short, transparency should be the new norm regardless of the pandemic.

Anything else is a disservice to the millions of Floridians who clamor for accurate information about programs available to help them — as well as to the network of non-governmental organizations and persons whose job it is to assist them.

 

Notes

[1] DCF administers Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provide health coverage and food and cash assistance respectively to families with low income. DEO runs the Unemployment Insurance program, which Florida calls Reemployment Assistance (RA), to help workers who lose jobs through no fault of their own.

[2] For example, among other things, USDA allows or has allowed states to ask for permission to provide emergency supplements to current SNAP recipients, extend certification periods, waive face-to-face interviews, and postpone expedited service interviews.

[3] Some organizations in Florida  are officially designated as community partners with DCF, which are groups who agree to be a liaison with applicants and recipients of DCF safety net programs. When an organization signs up to work as a partner with DCF, it must choose what level of service it will offer. There are two levels of service: self-service sites and assisted service sites.

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