Getting the Word Out: A Study of Assistance Information Made Available to Low-Income People through County Websites

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Electronic government (e-government) is vetted as a mechanism to deliver government information and services to the public with efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and greater democratization. The impacts to low-income people can be significant but the topic remains largely unexplored by research. This new study establishes a research agenda to examine the social impacts (rather than the technology focus) of that space wherein assistance information is deployed digitally and a low-income person seeks and retrieves it.

This dissertation examines how information about Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("food stamps), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("welfare") are delivered electronically. Case studies of three Maryland counties 1) examine information to understand what is made available on-line, 2) examine the state and county statutes, strategies, and policies issued on-line to understand expectations, requirements, and implementation decisions, and 3) compare implementations and alignment with statutory mandates.

The research identified commonalities and gaps between the mandates and implementation. In particular, state statutes support delivering services and information digitally across multiple platforms. This is being implemented for some county services but notably, not for assistance services for low-income people. This obviates opportunities to reduce the stigma, effort, and costs in applying for services and for realizing greater efficiency in assistance delivery by Departments of Social Services. This gap perpetuates low-income people as a "separate but unequal" class, making this a question of civil rights, and issues of income and full-realized citizenship.

This exploratory research provides a new lens through which to expand current information theory models such as information poverty, small worlds, and digital inclusion. It can help identify mechanisms to address.

This research can help policymakers to address the intersection of technology; changes in demographics, technology access, and literacy; income; citizenship; biases designed into automation; and organization efficiency. Finally, it can help inform a practical framework with which counties can determine how closely program information and delivery meet public needs and evaluate the impacts of e-government.