Means-Tested Programs:

Determining Financial Eligibility Is Cumbersome and Can Be Simplified

GAO-02-58: Published: Nov 2, 2001. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 2001.

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About 80 means-tested federal programs assisted low-income people in 1998. GAO reviewed 11 programs that assisted families and individuals with income, food, medical assistance, and housing. Despite substantial overlap in the populations they serve, the 11 programs varied significantly in their financial eligibility rules. At the most basic level, the dollar levels of the income limits--the maximum amounts of income an applicant can have and still be eligible for a program--vary across programs. Beyond this, differences exist in the income rules, such as whose income and what types of income are counted. The variations and complexity of the federal financial eligibility rules, along with other factors, have led to processes that are often duplicative and cumbersome for both caseworkers and applicants. Overall, federal, state, and local entities have made little progress in simplifying or coordinating eligibility determination processes. States realigned some of the financial rules, but only to a limited extent. Another approach uses computer systems to establish joint eligibility determination processes that a single caseworker can administer. Efforts to simplify or better coordinate eligibility determination processes confront many obstacles, including restrictive federal program statutes and regulations. In addition, program costs may rise if financial eligibility rules are changed.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Legislation to reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was approved by the House of Representatives in February 2003 (H.R. 4), and by the Senate Finance Committee in September 2003 (also called H.R. 4 but differs in some provisions). Each of these bills include provisions that would authorize "super waivers" that are similar in objective to the demonstration projects and waivers described in GAO's report recommendation.

    Matter: Congress should consider authorizing state and local demonstration projects designed to simplify and coordinate eligibility determination processes for means-tested federal programs. Such projects would provide states and localities with opportunities to test changes designed to simplify or align the financial eligibility rules for programs, increase the number of programs for which eligibility can be determined jointly, and expand data sharing across agencies to facilitate eligibility determinations. Once authorized, states and/or localities could submit proposals for demonstration projects and relevant federal agencies working in a coordinated manner could review them, suggest modifications as needed, and make final approval decisions. Demonstration projects would include waivers of federal statutes and regulations as needed and deemed appropriate. While GAO's review covered 11 means-tested federal programs, GAO is not suggesting that the demonstration projects must include all of these programs or exclude others. Consistent with a focus on citizen-centered government, states should be given the opportunity to try various approaches aimed at streamlining or simplifying eligibility determination processes that consider all feasible programs. Projects must be given sufficient time to be fully implemented and must include an evaluation component. Cost neutrality would be most desirable for federal approval of these projects. However, projects should not be rejected solely because they are unable to guarantee cost neutrality over the short run. It would be expected that, over a period of time, state and federal efforts to streamline eligibility determination processes would create administrative cost savings that could help offset any increased program costs.


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