Web site assists social outreach workers and low-income families

Nathan Hall

Minnesota social workers and the low-income families they serve got a leg-up from the University and the Internet on Monday.

The University’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium and the state’s Children’s Defense Fund have launched a Web site to streamline and consolidate the efforts of seven state and federal agencies that aid impoverished family units.

They hope the Web portal will become a primary stop for social outreach workers to determine the full extent of their client’s eligibility within 10 minutes or less.

“What we did here was completely unprecedented,” said Elaine Cunningham, director of Children’s Defense Fund. “A lot of working families would otherwise never know that these programs existed in the first place.”

For instance, if a poor, single mother attending night school hears about a reduced lunch program, she could look up the phone number of the federal Reduced Lunch Program, call and have some routine questions answered.

In the past, the person answering the phone would have sent out some forms and entered her into the database. But now, after just a few minutes, the operator will be able to provide information about the program she requested and give advice on other programs she could be eligible for, such as sliding fee child care.

“There is often very little contact between separate agencies, and so usually folks don’t think to link their clients to others that might be able to help that family out,” Cunningham said. “This cuts a lot of needless red tape and gives them direct access to very vital information.”

The Web site also provides up-to-date information on programs such as the Earned Income Working Family Tax Credit, the Working Family Credit, general assistance medical care and MinnesotaCare.

“(The Children’s Defense Fund) had an idea and approached us with it,” said Michael Brott, the University consortium’s communications coordinator. “We then just basically fleshed it out for them.”

Although the Web site is primarily designed for a wired social service coordinator, the system is user-friendly enough that a family member with novice Internet skills could enter the necessary data.

“We took info off of all these agencies’ sites and then refined it all,” Brott said. “We made it simpler – explained the procedures in layman terms.”

Over a year and a half of research was conducted on the site, and all of the state-level agencies involved reviewed each step of the design process.

“It’s important to note that not just social workers use this,” Brott said. “Community volunteers, synagogue laypeople, nonprofit volunteers, or even a county clerk can now sit down and help somebody out immeasurably in a matter of minutes.”

The site answers commonly asked eligibility questions as well as other pertinent information such as directions for where to apply for assistance, helpline numbers, program restrictions, a list of what to bring for the interview and tips on how to download and print files.

Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota will host a training program to better educate social service providers on how best to maximize the benefits of the site. The site is a major part of the organization’s three-year project called Covering Kids, which is a part of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, but was mainly funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the largest health care philanthropic source in the United States. Robert Wood Johnson, who recently died at age 74, was a brigadier general during World War II and made his fortune serving as chairman for then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s Smaller War Plants Corporation.

“The site makes sure these programs get fully utilized,” Brott said. “In a lot of cases, a little extra boost is what makes or breaks a family. Ö All you have to do is fire up a computer, and that might encourage them to take the next step.”

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