New York City Demystifies Social Service Benefits Screening

By creating a public API, the city has made it easier for public and private organizations to help individuals determine which public benefits programs they qualify for at the local, state and federal levels.

by / April 15, 2019
New York City Hall (Shutterstock)

Government has long struggled to ensure that all citizens who qualify for social services benefits receive them. A major barrier is the number of citizens who are eligible for benefits, but are unaware they qualify. Or if they do know, they don’t know how to submit an application.

To fix this problem, the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity has created the NYC Benefits Screening API. It pulls information about residents to determine which of more than 30 social service benefits programs — at the local, state, and federal levels — an individual might qualify for. It’s not a mechanism for granting anyone benefits, but it does the difficult work of letting residents know what they qualify for and how to complete an application. Now, developers are making the technical workings of that API available to the public.

The goal is to create more technology-based tools aimed at advising New Yorkers on which programs they might be eligible to receive, including food, money, housing or work benefit programs. The API is active right now via the Access NYC website, and contains a brief set of questions aimed at collecting information, such as marital status or income level, to determine eligibility. By going public with the API, the city hopes other organizations — both within the city and in the private sector — can add similar questions to more online platforms and tech products, ultimately helping New Yorkers to make the right choices about potential social service benefits.

The API will reflect any ongoing updates monitored by the Access NYC team and their relevant partners in city government, eliminating the need for organizations that develop digital tools from having to track changes. This is relevant, given that Access NYC has been a continuously evolving tool during its roughly 10 years of life, said Matt Klein, the executive director for the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity.

“That’s been a product we’ve been continually updating, with the most recent enhancement making it mobile friendly,” he said. “It’s also built on open source tools and built with a heavy emphasis on user-driven design.”

Klein said the release of the API now comes partially in response to an increasing number of community groups, city departments and private companies creating digital tools designed to do what Access NYC already does. Making the API available to the public is essentially a means of helping them avoid doing work that has already been done.

Song Hia, a product manager with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, participated in a recent redevelopment of Access NYC, during which much of the groundwork for the public release was established. This redevelopment, which started in the summer of 2016 and was a collaborative effort across agencies, saw the product team create a simpler 10-step screening process, rewrite portions of it in plain language, implement additional language, and eventually add touches such as location finders and mobile-first design.

Building Access NYC in a way to eventually make it accessible to others who are working towards similar goals was a logical addition, according to Hia. Key to this was also continued support from elected officials in New York City.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, was a major proponent of the project. Kallos is also a software developer, and he has previously worked on projects with similar goals, including eatfresh.org, which provides healthy recipes to users who are on a budget. Kallos introduced Local Law 60 in 2018, which spurred the city to consider how tech and data could advance access to benefits there.

Kallos said the API is going to be a way for private-sector innovators to avoid having to understand and navigate bureaucracy. Instead, they will be able to focus on creating a new digital means of using data and applications for other services to screen individuals and ultimately determine if they are eligible for benefits they aren’t receiving.

“Now that New York City has finally done the right thing by making its benefits available through an API, the challenge now comes to the private sector for how we can work together to finally end hunger and poverty in New York City,” said Kallos.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.