When Texas residents log on to STARS , the state's new online public assistance screening service, they can find out within 10 minutes whether they may be eligible for a wide range of benefits, from shelter and cash benefits to medical coverage or child assistance. With just a few clicks of the computer mouse, the Web site wipes away years of government bureaucracy and replaces it with the kind of navigational tool for information that was unheard of just a few years ago.

The idea behind STARS was to provide needy residents with a single door into the world of public assistance. "It's hard enough to navigate the welfare system if you know it," explained Suzanne Biermann, the executive sponsor of TIERS, the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, of which STARS is a part. "But if you don't know, here's a tool that allows you to find assistance at your leisure."

The one thing STARS doesn't do is tell the applicant whether they are actually eligible for aid or not. For that to happen, they must print out the results of their online self-screening and bring the information down to the local welfare intake office. "It's not meant to be an online eligibility application," said Biermann. "The idea is to improve access and have better-informed people, so when they come in, they will know what to expect from the process and what sort of paperwork they should bring in advance."

STARS reflects the intriguing potential of Web-based services for welfare and their current limitations. On one hand, STARS breaks down a multitude of bureaucratic barriers by offering residents a simple and effective way to gather information about their eligibility for more than 50 public assistance programs. The bilingual system, designed by American Management Systems, allows users to find out about their welfare options based on need, not by government program. Its relative simplicity makes the online service easy for just about anyone to use.

But the fact remains, the Web site can't simplify the actual application process. Government case workers must still sit down with applicants face-to-face and gather minute details about their financial situation, a process that can go on for hours and involve forms that are more than a dozen pages long. While some e-government proponents see human contact as a weak link in what could be a seamless chain of online services for the poor, others are not so ready to dismiss the role of the human caseworker who must gauge the needs and priorities of a family out of work, food and money.

What the Web can do, as Biermann pointed out, is give the applicant an idea of what their options are and what they should be prepared to have with them once they show up for their appointment. The result could be a less painful process that takes less time to complete.

That's good news because the nation's unemployment and welfare rolls, which have been low for some time, have begun to grow once again. More people out of work means more people wanting government help as quickly as possible. Long lines and delays in receiving benefits are likely if welfare offices become swamped with the needy. But with a Web-based service, such as STARS, more people will arrive at local intake offices with the right information in hand and can be processed much more quickly, according to Biermann and other government officials.

Welfare Rolls on the Increase

Since 1996, state welfare caseloads have dropped from 4.6 million to about 2.2 million today. But with the softening economy, that picture may soon change. Last August, Pennsylvania reported that the number of welfare caseloads rose slightly from June to July, the state's first increase since welfare reform was enacted in August 1996. By early September, the U.S. Department of Health and