Means-Tested Programs:

Information on Program Access Can Be an Important Management Tool

GAO-05-221: Published: Apr 8, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 2005.

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Federal agencies that administer means-tested programs are responsible for both ensuring that people have appropriate access to assistance and ensuring the integrity of the programs they oversee. To balance these two priorities appropriately, it is important for agencies to have information on program integrity and program access. Knowing the proportion of the population that qualifies for these programs relative to the numbers who actually participate can help ensure that agencies can monitor and communicate key information on program access. To better understand participation in low-income programs, this report provides information on: (1) the proportion of those eligible who are participating in 12 selected low-income programs; (2) factors that influence participation in those programs; and (3) strategies used by federal, state, and local administrators to improve both access and integrity, and whether agencies monitor access by measuring participation rates.

For 12 federal programs supporting low-income people, we found that the proportion of those eligible who are enrolled varies substantially both between and within programs. Among entitlement programs--those programs that provide benefits to all applicants that meet program eligibility criteria--these rates range from about 50 to more than 70 percent. Among non-entitlement programs--those with limited funding--these rates ranged from less than 10 percent to more than 50 percent. While it may be neither feasible nor desirable for programs to serve 100 percent of those eligible for benefits, information on the share of those eligible who are enrolled in means-tested programs and on particular recipient groups such as the elderly or families with children, can help program managers more effectively address issues related to program access. However, participation rate estimates must be interpreted carefully because of limitations in the data sources and estimation methodologies used to calculate the estimates. Many factors influence access to low-income programs--including the type of benefits, ease of access, misperceptions about program requirements, and application and eligibility verification procedures. These factors can impact not only the share of eligible people who participate in low-income programs, but other aspects of program access as well, including the composition of the program caseload and how programs work together to serve low-income individuals and families. Federal, state, and local administrators have implemented many strategies to achieve the goals of access and integrity, but federal agencies generally put more emphasis on tracking information and outcomes related to program integrity than program access. To better ensure that program administrators achieve program integrity goals, agencies have begun to develop measures to track and report on program integrity. Federal agencies have developed participation rate estimates for several low-income programs, but only four--CCDF, food stamps, WIC, and EITC--either currently collect and report information on the extent to which they are reaching their target populations or plan to do so. Such information can guide administrators in setting priorities and targeting scarce resources, even among programs that were not intended to serve everyone eligible for program benefits.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) commissioned an expert panel of the National Research Council to review the method used to calculate the number of individuals eligible for the WIC program and to develop an improved methodology. The new estimates incorporate technical improvements and provide a more accurate picture of program coverage. New estimates have been in place since February 2006.

    Recommendation: As the department moves forward with participation rate estimates for the WIC program, the Secretary of Agriculture should take steps to clarify to users the limitations of the estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) completed revisions to the methods and assumptions used to estimate the number of people who are income-eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. The estimates using the new methodology were calculated for 1994 through 2003 and provide USDA with estimates that are consistent over a substantial time period and comparable over time. The Department anticipates using the same approach to develop updated estimates.

    Recommendation: As the department moves forward with participation rate estimates for the WIC program, the Secretary of Agriculture should compare between estimates by reanalyzing data as estimation methodologies change, so that consistent methods are applied over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Public and Indian Housing has estimated coverage rates for the Section 8 and Public Housing programs included in the Public and Indian Housing rental assistance programs under two sets of assumptions. The table showing these estimates provides information on the limitations of the estimates. The table was included in the appendix to the Seventh Annual Report to Congress on Public Housing and Rental Assistance Programs.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have information on program access, the Secretaries of Education and HUD should study the feasibility of calculating participation or coverage rates and including them in key program management reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) completed a study examining the feasibility of implementing a student unit record system that could provide Education with certain information on every student enrolled in postsecondary education, which could be used to help calculate Pell Grant program participation rates, but such a system has not been established.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have information on program access, the Secretaries of Education and HUD should study the feasibility of calculating participation or coverage rates and including them in key program management reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS reported that it has taken several steps to improve its participation and coverage rate estimates and was reviewing the possibility of making additional enhancements to its Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) estimates. Work was also underway to improve estimates of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility and participation, and participation in various programs by immigrants. With regard to quantifying errors, HHS noted that not all errors can be quantified, but stated that the agency was considering ways in which to provide information that will help users better understand the accuracy of the data used to calculate participation and coverage rates.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS should consider making some improvements to the participation and coverage rate information produced for the CCDF, Medicaid, SCHIP, and TANF programs, such as quantifying errors that result from calculating these estimates to help users better understand the accuracy of the data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS considered making improvements in their participation and coverage rate estimates and stated that there is value in ensuring that estimates are, to the extent possible, comparable over time, but after consideration, the agency concluded that it places a higher priority on investing in model enhancements to improve current estimates rather than devoting substantial resources to retroactively adjust prior estimates for the sake of consistency. It does, however, continue to provide technical assistance to improve data collection and reporting.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS should consider making some improvements to the participation and coverage rate information produced for the CCDF, Medicaid, SCHIP, and TANF programs, such as ensuring, to the extent possible, that estimates are comparable over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of December 12, 2008, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and The Census Bureau completed the tax year 2005 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) participation rate estimates using linked Census and IRS data. The new estimate of EITC participation used an enhanced methodology which is more informed and comprehensive than past studies due to the availability of additional data. The methodology, including the data limitation and modeling assumptions, were documented. This study will be repeated for tax year 2006 with updated information by late 2009; an estimate for tax year 2007 will be completed when additional information is available.

    Recommendation: As the IRS moves forward on developing participation rate estimates to use as a program performance measure for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should take steps to quantify errors that may result from estimating these participation rates to help users better understand the accuracy of the data and ensure that estimates will be comparable over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has considered the feasibility of providing participation rates and has come to the conclusion that the Current Population Survey cannot be used to estimate SSI participation rates. Because the Census Bureau has discontinued the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the agency's preferred source of data for this type of estimate, the agency has concluded that a suitable data source is not available to estimate participation rates.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the agency has information on program access, the Commissioner of SSA should consider the feasibility of providing participation rate information (from the existing source or another source) in SSA program management reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  9. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, HHS reported that it had no plans to include program participation and coverage rate estimates in key program reports beyond what has been done in the past. In 2009, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) reported that it plans no activity at this time.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS should include participation and coverage rate estimates in key program reports for the CCDF, Medicaid, SCHIF, and TANF programs.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) reported that it considered the feasibility of estimating the coverage rate for the Head Start program but that the Office of Head Start (OHS) concluded that OHS cannot do this with any degree of accuracy due to a number of factors, including: 1) in addition to children in families with incomes below the poverty line, Head Start children from families receiving public assistance are categorically eligible, 2) determining if pre-school Head Start children are being referred to, or all children not in kindergarten (e.g., Early Head Start), and 3) and new authority in the Head Start Act to allow programs to serve up to 35% of their enrollment from families between 100-130% of the poverty line adds another dimension.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS should study the feasibility of estimating the coverage rate for the Head Start program on a regular basis and include these estimates in key Head Start program reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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