Food Stamp Mobile Automated Application and Expert System
Background & Problem: Despite the availability of food stamp benefits, rates of completed Food
Stamp applications continually remain below the underlying eligibility rate. The result is that some
citizens eat less than or eat less nutritious foods than they should. A key barrier to receiving benefits is
the lack of knowledge about benefit eligibility. Currently, in order to discover one’s eligibility, you have
to make two trips to a family and children services office. In addition to the barriers of travel time and a
possible desire not to visit a welfare office, applicants often have substantial wait time and must complete
a significant amount of paperwork before discovering their eligibility and benefit levels.
The Project: Obviously, with sufficient resources, outreach efforts could be undertaken to inform high-
risk families of their eligibility. These efforts could be designed so as to engage people where they live,
work, and play (i.e., on their turf), to inform them quickly of their potential eligibility, and to reduce or
eliminate unnecessary hassles or trips to welfare offices. The Food Stamp Mobile Automated Application
project is designed to use technology to both support an initial outreach effort and to test an idea that, if
proven, could result in substantial savings.
The Savings and Added Capacity Potential: Currently, before a worker can take a Food Stamps
application, he or she must go through five weeks of training. Typically, this training occurs away from
home and, therefore, involves substantial state costs for board and lodging in addition to the cost of the
training and the opportunity cost represented by the fact that a worker in training is not performing job
duties. (See Table 1 for an estimate of savings due to elimination of one-fifth of the training requirements
for Food Stamp case managers.
Table 1: Cost Factors for Typical Training Week
for 324 Family Independence Case Managers*
Room & Board & Travel @ $125 per day= $625 * 342 = $213,750.00
Trainer & Training Facility @ $50 per day: $250 = $85,500.00
Opportunity Cost: $242,902.00
Annual Savings due to a 1 week reduction $785,054.00
in Training Days required:
10-Year Savings: $7,850,540.00
*Staff numbers are based on Numbers of turnovers in the Family Independence Case Managers I & II positions for the most
recent time period. (As of April, 2003).
Based on these preliminary figures, we estimate that were it possible to reduce the training time by even a
week, the state would gain an extra $785,054.00 worth of new service delivery capacity each year. This
capacity could be redirected toward outreach or other efforts to address the problems of poverty and
malnutrition. In addition to helping to save resources by reducing training time, the project also has the
potential to add important capacity to an outreach program. Currently, all of the people taking Food
Stamp applications are full-time, and generally have a fairly high level of education. (The full-time and
educational requirements are a natural outcome of a program with highly complex rules that requires
significant investment in training. With high training cost, it is desirable to spread these costs over more
working hours; hence, the full-time work expectation.) While such employee characteristics are desirable
in many cases, they also add costs to the program and reduce flexibility. In particular, these requirements
would undermine efforts to employ workers who are more indigenous to their communities, but who may
not have the educational background or capacity to work full time (e.g., a young mother who is herself on
The key barrier to realizing the benefits of increased savings and capability is the complexity of the Food
Stamps eligibility and benefit determination rules. Workers have to be capable of taking an application
without errors, or the state will be penalized for high error rates.
Project Technology Capabilities
Capability #1: allow eligibility workers to take and process applications in various settings (e.g., grocery
stores, homes, schools, places of employment, etc.) and to give more attention to families in need by
reducing the memory, calculation, and workflow knowledge burdens typically borne by these workers.
Eliminate the carrying of paper, forms, manuals, etc. to outreach sites
Reduce the amount of knowledge that a worker has to keep in his/her head to accurately screen for
eligibility and correctly determine benefit levels.
Include special help on alien status and the calculation of benefit level in household that involve non-
Identify cases that might need to be handled by a more expert worker.
Capability #2: create agency cost savings by:
Using an expert system to allow less-highly-trained workers to complete applications with an error
rate no greater than currently exists for more highly trained workers.
Enabling part-time workers who are indigenous to the community to take applications
Enabling workers to upload data stored on a laptop into a central database via a web-based interface
Expert System: Determining the Assistance Unit, Eligibility Status, and Coupon Value
Preliminary research identified the need to build two components for a Food Stamp Expert System.
1. Component for determining the proper size and configuration of the assistance unit
This component will incorporate an “understanding” of the following general rules:
Insure that all those who are linked by a mandatory assistance unit relationship be included in the
assistance unit (e.g. if a parent is included in the AU and has a child under age 22, the child must be
included; spouses also must be included). The recursive nature of these rules make them difficult to
Insure that the various eligible and ineligible alien, lawbreaker, student, and able-bodied restrictive
assistance unit categories are addressed and that the worker is notified of special follow-up steps.
2. Component for Determining Eligibility and Benefits This component:
Checks for allowable gross income and resource limits by family size (separate checks for regular and
Checks and calculates resource limits by key factors (e.g., limits on the value of non-work vehicles.)
Calculates earned and unearned income (e.g., built-in weekly/bi-weekly income calculator that uses
the appropriate multiplier such as 4.33 for weekly income).
Calculates excess shelter deduction.(e.g., Determine half of adjusted income, etc.)
Calculates income deductions by categories (e.g., medical expenses, alimony, etc.)
Checks for limits on child care expense per child by child’s age group.
Calculates standard deduction (including specialized standard deductions for larger families)
Applies the net income test and automates calculation of coupon benefit levels (thereby eliminating
numerous pages of lookup tables that are prone to human error).
Sets the standard utility allowances (HC, non-HC, Telephone only) based on applicable rules
Addresses numerous ineligible Alien/able-bodied/elderly income inclusions/exclusion and excess
shelter and medical expenses issues
Technology Considerations: The system is designed to use web-oriented technology so as to
simplify learning, increase ease of use, flexibility and portability of the application. Workers
will be able to use the application offline but then upload the stored data from any Internet client
(e.g., at home, at a Public Health office, etc.). Eventually components of the technology could
be made public for use by other social workers and natural helpers (e.g., a school social worker
could potentially determine eligibility and benefit levels and thereby have a basis for
encouraging a family to apply).