Millions of low-income working families in America today are struggling to make ends meet. While working hard, often in low-wage jobs, many of these families are living close to the edge of hardship and have little or no resources to fall back on in case of emergencies. Public benefit programs can make a huge difference in the well-being of these working families, providing help with food, child care, and health insurance expenses. These programs help families address immediate needs and weather short-term crises, such as repairing a car needed to get to work or dealing with an unexpected health problem. They can make it possible for families to hold onto their jobs in these emergencies, stabilizing employment and keeping families from falling further into poverty.
Yet many families that are eligible for public benefit programs do not participate. Although the recession and its aftermath led to unprecedented increases in receipt of nutrition assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the latest data (from 2010) show that only 65 percent of the eligible working poor are participating. Similarly, of all children eligible for public health insurance coverage through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, only 86 percent are participating. The participation rate for public health insurance for parents is only 66 percent. And, these participation rates vary widely across states.
The Work Support Strategies, or WSS, Initiative is motivated by the value public benefit programs can provide to working families and the belief that the states and localities administering these programs can improve how eligible families access and retain these benefits. In the first year of the demonstration, nine states took on the challenge of streamlining, integrating, and improving the provision of work support benefits through their SNAP, Medicaid, and child care programs (and, in some states, additional programs such as heating assistance and cash welfare). While most states hope their efforts will also reduce burden on caseworkers and administrative costs in these systems, all are motivated to improve the lives of the families they serve.