Arkansas has ANSWER to the welfare question
- By Heather Harreld
- Jul 03, 2000
Several state and local social service agencies have launched Internet portals
to help guide other government agencies and potential clients through the
maze of human services programs and their complicated eligibility requirements.
The World Wide Web is uniquely suited to human services programs, these
agencies say, because people can anonymously learn about programs that can
carry a stigma such as welfare or food stamps without having to physically
visit a government office. In addition, because a person in need may qualify
for assistance from various programs or agencies, a Web portal can alert
potential clients to all the services that might be available to them.
In Montana, the Virtual Human Services Pavilion began as a way for the
state to meet the demands of welfare reform without hiring additional staff,
which the budget wouldn't allow. The state's Department of Public Health
and Human Services partnered with the state labor department to build an
online job search system that allows users to look up job openings and post
"If an individual didn't have a PC at home, they could go anywhere that
had Internet access," said Mike Billings, administrator of the operations
and technology division of the health department. "They can do a lot of
job exploration without having to go to an office. That same information
is available to people who don't have transportation."
The site has evolved into a human services portal, allowing people to
virtually walk through a human services building and access various kiosks,
which provide customizable data about public assistance programs, child
care, senior care and other services. The site also offers a "virtual assistant"
that automatically provides a list of commonly requested topics such as
Medicaid, child support and long-term care and allows users to search
For now, Billings said, the site allows people only to obtain information
about human services, such as welfare, without having to go to a government
office. In the future, officials plan to allow users to apply for welfare
Montana is also finalizing plans to add a criminal records history system
to the Web site that would allow state and other officials to check the
backgrounds of potential day care, group home or nursing home workers to
see if they have ever been convicted of a felony.
In Palo Alto, Calif., officials created a human services portal to bridge
the communications gap regarding human services. Because of an increasingly
fast-paced lifestyle, many people do not share information with their neighbors
and others in the community as much as they did in the past, said Sharon
Murphy, coordinator of family resources for the city. "We said, "Let's create
one place where people can go...and it will get them in the right place,'"
she said. "It would also establish the connections they would need to take
the next step forward."
The city is marketing the Family Resources site at 10 different public
Internet access locations, such as libraries and community centers. At
those kiosks, users can browse through a hard-copy version of the data contained
on the Web site to become familiar with the Internet options.
In addition, city officials have launched an "ambassador" program designed
to train community outreach volunteers. The idea is to teach people about
the site so that if their jobs bring them in contact with people in need,
they can refer potential clients to the Internet resources.
Also, the site is available in four of the languages most commonly spoken
in the city.
New Hampshire is using its Web site to promote a new tool called the
Wired Wizard, which is software that screens people's eligibility for cash
assistance or services. Although the software is available only via CD-ROM,
the state plans this summer to Web-enable it so that various organizations,
such as hospitals and soup kitchens, can determine in real time if a person
is eligible for various programs.
Once a family's or individual's information is entered into the system,
Wired Wizard screens for eligibility for all programs in the database at
the same time, said Kathy Walker, director of New Hampshire's Department
of Health and Human Services. The Web-enabled version will allow this eligibility
data to be electronically transferred to the appropriate agency, so it will
be in the system when a person visits a government office. The Web-enabled
version will also allow individuals to screen themselves to see if they
qualify for cash assistance and services.
The program works for the 110 state programs that provide cash assistance,
60 of which have hard-and-fast eligibility rules that require calculations.
The tool is designed to make it easier for various organizations to refer
potential clients to human services programs, Walker said.
"If we can get them to use the computer...it becomes a very cost-effective
way to provide information," she said.
Despite the potential of the Web to expand human services to a larger population,
the new technology could present some drawbacks for potential clients, said
Richard Peterson, professor of sociology at Cornell College in Mount Vernon,
"There's a certain way of thinking about information that makes the
Web accessible to some and not to others," Peterson said. "It's new and
it's different, and they're not used to it."
Some service recipients may have encountered a bureaucratic wall on previous
attempts to get help. Now, they may have to overcome trust issues before
turning to the Web.
"The mistrust is some misunderstanding of what the government programs
will do and can do," Peterson said.
Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.