Applying for public assistance is overwhelming and inefficient. Here’s how NYC can fix it.

Three years ago, 62-year-old Yves Morris suffered an aneurysm that impaired his cognitive abilities and left him unable to work. Earlier this year, as a mountain of unpaid bills piled up and his heat and gas were shut off, the Queens resident turned to public assistance for help.

Accompanied by his adult daughter, who had to take an unpaid day off to accompany her father, he traveled to a New York City Human Resources Administration office and waited hours to be seen. The all-day wait drained and frustrated Morris, who ultimately had to return multiple times. Despite receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits and Medicaid, he was denied disability assistance and instructed to reapply.

Yves Morris, whose name was changed here to protect his privacy, is just one of the millions of New Yorkers subjected to the trauma and stress of applying for benefits, which only compounds their challenging circumstances. While the online screening tool ACCESS NYC has improved a historically arduous process, it must be expanded and enhanced so that New York City residents can apply for all benefits online through the portal.

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Currently, ACCESS NYC helps people discover if they qualify for over 30 city, state and federal benefit programs. However, only three benefits offer online applications or recertifications through ACCESS NYC: SNAP, public assistance and Medicaid renewal. That’s akin to having 30 items in your cart and instead of being able to hit the submit button, you’re directed to 30 different websites where you have to enter all of your selections and information again, and then hit submit 30 different times – or worse, have to physically travel to 27 locations. This is absurd in this technologically driven day and age.

Centralizing online applications through one portal is a much more efficient system that will reduce the time that New York City residents need to take to apply separately for the different programs (including having to mail or personally submit applications). It will also increase the likelihood that people will apply and free up government workers’ time having to enter application data so that they can focus instead on client needs and services.

To help address economic inequality and provide work supports to New Yorkers, ACCESS NYC must bolster its platform to include online applications for all of the benefits – or as many as possible. Doing so will make them more accessible to those in need of assistance. Many of the benefits are federally funded, so in not maximizing access, New York City is leaving money on the table – funds that are much needed by our working families and elderly.

Many other states have implemented comprehensive online benefits screening and online applications systems – including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina – in an effort to increase families' well-being and stability.

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With nearly half of all New York City living at or near poverty, it is vital to provide work supports to struggling working families and benefits to help keep children, seniors and all New Yorkers afloat. Government benefits enable vulnerable people to stabilize their lives, particularly in times of emergencies, and provide the security to move forward.

I urge the mayor to allocate resources in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year for much needed ACCESS NYC upgrades. Given the current levels of need, these changes are essential, and for countless New Yorkers could mean the difference between ruin and restoration.

During the holiday season especially, our thoughts turn to the far too many New Yorkers who are only a few paychecks away from poverty and homelessness. With displacement and housing insecurity rampant in our city, we must do everything in our power to keep our most vulnerable, like Yves Morris, from falling through the cracks. By harnessing the power of technology to transform the current ACCESS NYC portal, we can ensure that applying for relief doesn’t become onerous or overwhelming when it should be one less burden to bear.

Letitia James is the New York City public advocate.

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