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Coming Soon: An Amazon.com For Social Services

Need a college loan? Or unemployment benefits? Just add it to the shopping cart and Single Stop makes it simple to see which government programs you qualify for.

Coming Soon: An Amazon.com For Social Services
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

For every person who takes advantage of government programs such as federal aid for college or food stamps, there are many who need them but don’t. Billions of dollars in government resources are left on the table. This is largely because of labyrinthine sign-up procedures, requiring time, effort, and in-person visits that wear many people out or confuse them before they get their benefits.

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Single Stop USA, a national nonprofit with locations in eight states, smooths out the benefit qualification process. Staffers meet with clients in person, ask a handful of questions, offer up all the benefits that the client is eligible for, help them fill out the necessary forms, and when possible, even file the forms electronically. Single Stop has reached has reached over 850,000 families by its own estimates, and has helped its clients tap into services and benefits worth over $2.2 billion since it launched nationally in 2007 (It originally spun off from New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation). It’s an effective model, but Single Stop thinks it can do more.

This week, Single Stop announced that it’s building software to let clients conduct online self-screenings for government and community resources, including food stamps, Medicaid, student financial aid, and food pantries. They can still come in to Single Stop locations if they need extra help. But once it’s up and running, a visit to the Single Stop self-screening website will be all some people people need.

“There are many resources are out there, but one of the biggest problems is a lack of coordination, information, and access,” says Elisabeth Mason, chief executive of Single Stop. She compares the software platform to a one-stop shopping resource like Amazon, where visitors can put all the items they want in a virtual shopping cart and check out at the end. Single Stop is also leveraging lessons learned from the advertising industry about how to predict what people will want when they visit the site, the same way that Target can figure out whether a given customer is pregnant.

Single Stop has long been a tech leader in the nonprofit space. “When we left Robin Hood, I knew I wanted some sort of tool. We were tech focused from the beginning. At the time, we had a benefit screening tool only. It ended up becoming one of premier benefit case management tools. Now it’s sort of antiquated, and it’s clear that there’s a much bigger game out there,” says Mason. “We’re looking at one of the largest sectors in America. This could be huge.”

Initially, the pilot will focus on clients looking for college aid, in addition to other social services. In New York, Single Stop may also target other demographics, like veterans and clients seeking early childhood benefits.

The platform is similar to an online shopping site, in a sense. Clients are asked a short series of questions (family income, ZIP code, etc.), mention the types benefits they’re interested in, and are instantly given an estimate of what they’re eligible to receive each year–say, $3,000 for health insurance, $6,100 in federal and state aid for college tuition, and so on.

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As with any online checkout process, clients add what they want into the shopping cart. At that point, they’re given contact information for nearby recommended providers, which they can contact directly through the Single Stop platform. Like Amazon, the site offers other recommendations for services based on what similar clients are interested in (i.e If you need help with food, maybe you’d also be interested in unemployment insurance). Single Stop is also working on adding video chats for clients who need more help, and a backend system that provides powerful analytics for case managers.

If the online services aren’t enough, clients can still go into a Single Stop location. “The Single Stop office is the doctor versus the WebMD,” says Mason.

Mason is open to the idea of offering the upcoming platform to other organizations, including government agencies. “We’re thinking about not just deploying this publicly, but how do you integrate into the application process for universities, in the front end of their system,” she says. The platform will likely roll out towards the end of 2014.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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