Assessing the Impact of a Modernized Application Process on Florida’s Food Stamp Caseload

Year: 2009

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Heflin, Colleen, and Peter Mueser

Institution: University of Missouri

Project Contact:
Colleen Heflin
University of Missouri
Truman School of Public Affairs
120 Middlebush Hall
Columbia, MO 65203
Phone: 573-882-4398


The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) has been a leader in the modernization of its service-delivery system by eliminating the need for an applicant to visit a State office and fill out an application. In 2004, Florida implemented a major modernization of its application process, replacing caseworkers with specialized staff who perform separate administrative tasks. Florida next adopted ACCESS (Automated Community Connection to Economic Self-Sufficiency) in 2005, an Internet-based system that uses a single online application for eligibility determination in public assistance programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Stamp Program (FSP), now the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) , and Medicaid.

One of the main issues regarding modernization efforts such as those implemented in Florida is their impact on FSP participation by eligible populations. Nationally, about 60 percent of those eligible for FSP were estimated to participate in 2004. For the “working poor” (people who were eligible for FSP and lived in households in which someone earned income from a job), the participation rate was lower at 51 percent. In Florida, FSP participation rates trailed national averages, with 55 percent of the eligible population and 42 percent of the working poor participating in the program during 2004. Studies of FSP nonparticipation among eligible individuals often list factors such as “too many hassles” as reasons for not participating.

However, the ability of Internet-based services to increase participation in social service programs is an untested proposition. As the Internet and its applications continue to expand, there is persistent evidence of differences in the rates of Internet use, with members of disadvantaged groups less likely to use the Internet, a difference termed the “digital divide.” Thus, on the one hand, modernization efforts, such as those in Florida, raise concerns about access to the social service system given that the client base is low income by definition and disproportionately low education and non-White, attributes that impede access to, and use of, the Internet. This concern is amplified in Florida, where modernization has been accompanied by a 43-percent reduction in staff and a 33-percent reduction in brick-and-mortar DCF offices throughout the State. On the other hand, the reduction of transaction costs associated with use of the Internet in applying for benefits (possible reductions in time, transportation costs, child care costs, and stigma) may well have increased access for some populations, such as the working poor.

The major changes associated with Florida’s modernization efforts are detailed in the table (p. 26). The impact of these changes on the size of the caseload operates through individuals flowing on and off of FSP. If potential recipients find that applying for food stamps is facilitated by modernization, the number of individuals applying for benefits and the number entering the program is likely to grow. If current recipients find that recertification is easier, fewer people are expected to leave the program. The policy impact is captured with three measures. The first is the number of applications that are filed in a given month, reflecting individual decisions to apply for benefits. The second is the number of households that enter the caseload in a given month. Last is the number leaving the caseload. In each case, the dependent variable is based on a flow count from State administrative data for 23 county groups in a particular month during January 2003-May 2008 and models that control for the unemployment rate, seasonality, and county fixed effects.

The study finds that the modernization of the DCF and the downsizing of agency staff have reduced both the number of applications and the level of inflows to FSP. Effects of these policies on outflows were generally small and not statistically significant in the full sample. Simulations suggest that the strongest negative effects of modernization were observed among the elderly and African Americans. High earners, while still negatively affected by the staffing reductions, may have actually gained from modernization.

Direct inquiries about this study to the Project Contact listed above.