Making Food Stamps User-Friendly – Jimmy Chen (POY 01)

Making Food Stamps User-Friendly - Jimmy Chen (POY 01)

Jimmy Chen is a co-founder and CEO at a startup that is redesigning services like Food Stamps to be user-friendly. Learn about the podcast and about Jimmy.

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Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.

Jimmy Chen is a co-founder and the CEO at Propel, a Brooklyn startup that is redesigning government services to be more user-friendly. I talked with Jimmy about Easy Food Stamps, Propel’s new mobile app that makes SNAP benefits easier to apply for.

Before I play my conversation with Jimmy, and because this is the first episode, I should probably talk about the purpose of this podcast. Over the course of this series, I plan to interview leaders, experts, activists, entrepreneurs, and ordinary folks like you and me who are working daily to improve the lives of others. I got the idea from a couple of major influences.

The first was something that occurred to me while I was in graduate school for sociology. I worked for many years as assistant for an environmental sociologist. I was able to assist him while he established a network of community health workers along the Gulf of Mexico. One of my projects under him was to compile a list of community resources among coastal counties in four states so that anyone could go online and find them—things like mental health practitioners, low cost health care, legal assistance, and so on.1

I realized while putting this list together that there were hundreds of people all around me doing good deeds that I had never heard of, and that’s been on my mind ever since. Jimmy actually touched on this in our conversation, that there are countless groups and individuals making things better out there but we barely know they exist. Until now, I haven’t known what to do about it, and that’s one reason I started this podcast.

My second influence comes from research I’ve conducted over the last few years on social trust, with one particular publication that stands out.

In May of 2014, I wrote an article about trends in trust among Americans over the last 40 years.2 I’ll put a link to that in the show notes at this podcast’s website, which by the way is pluralofyou.org. For now, I’ll summarize it in three bullet points. One, survey data has shown that trust declined among Americans over the last few decades. Only 1 in 3 of us would now agree with the statement “most people can be trusted,” whereas over half agreed with the statement about 45 years ago. Two, this decline in trust has not been equal among all social groups. Gaps in trust between groups like older and younger Americans and whites and non-whites would suggest that different groups of Americans have different degrees of trust, so there cannot be a single solution for the decline. And three, I concluded that a restoration of trust would need positive role models and events to re-establish trustworthiness bit by bit through the country, and that this would need several years to take root.

We couldn’t expect superheroes to fall out of nowhere and meet this need overnight. Instead, it’s going to take persistence and a lot of intellectual seed sowing by many warm-hearted people. The good news is that people like this exist among us already—we just have to pay attention to them.

Having said all of that, my ideal for The Plural of You is to offer a humble dose of trust, compassion, and community by giving these people a platform. News and rumors do a poor job of representing what’s fully happening in the world, and I’m as guilty as anyone of forgetting that. Overall, we live in one of the most fortunate periods of human history by measures of health and safety. However, psychologists like Roy Baumeister have observed that humans are prone to a negativity bias, which means unpleasant things often linger in our thoughts longer than pleasant things.3 This bias is a survival trait that’s left over from when our societies were smaller and more volatile, and it can distort how we think about one another today.4 My goal with this podcast, then, is to remind listeners like you that humans can be rotten to one another, sure, but they can be pretty cool to one another, too. In my opinion, the latter deserves to be celebrated.

That leads me back to Jimmy Chen. I learned about Jimmy and his team at Propel through their Kickstarter campaign, which succeeded in raising funds for the Easy Food Stamps app. The work they are doing draws attention at least two realities about American society: that millions of Americans need help to meet their basic needs from time to time, and that, generally speaking, access to those services sucks. This is how the team at Propel summarized these circumstances on their Kickstarter page:

“Complicated requirements, incomplete instructions, and long office waits make it hard for eligible Americans to get government benefits they need. Those who apply in person face long lines at food stamp offices and complex forms. People who need food stamps don’t have the luxury of time. An hour spent waiting at a food stamp office means an hour less of wages, or another hour of childcare to pay for.”

They go on to cite a study from the Pew Research Center, which showed that 45 percent of low-income Americans who own phones use them as their primary method to access the Internet. That’s why the criticism of people in poverty owning smartphones is unfair, but that’s another discussion.

The point that Propel is making is that, if so many people are getting online with their phones, then government websites should be designed with that in mind. In the case of the SNAP program, which by the way is the formal name of the food stamps program in the U.S., about 15 percent of Americans rely on it at any given moment to meet their basic needs.5 It’s easy to see how millions of us would benefit from better access to government services, and I’m proud of Jimmy and his team for accepting the challenge.

Now I can play our conversation. Jimmy called me via Skype from a coffee shop in Brooklyn, and the audio came out surprisingly well, given what coffee shops usually sound like. My interview skills were rusty, so it’s a little short, but I think it turned out great. I’ll let you listen for yourself. Here’s Jimmy Chen, co-founder and CEO of Propel.

Interview

JM: How’s it going? How are you doing?

JC: I’m good, I’m good. I just got back from Philadelphia last night. We’ve been making the commute to Philadelphia every week, so I’m back in Brooklyn now, which is where I’m based. We have a pretty unique opportunity to work with the Philadelphia city government, so were kind of taking that. That means we’re in Philadelphia every Wednesday through Friday of every week working with the Mayor’s office to see if we can make something like this work in Philadelphia.

JM: That’s great, because I was gonna ask if—I noticed in the Kickstarter, it’s listed as being based on Brooklyn. Then I saw some other information that had you listed in Philadelphia.

JC: Yeah.

JM: So you’re working between the two cities.

JC: We’re working between the two cities, and it’s kind of where we’re trying to get our start. We always kind of imagined our vision as being broader than just one geography or one city. We want to make sure we build the software so that it works great in one place first before we scale out kind of nationally, but growing to other cities has always been on our plate.

JM: I guess we should talk a little bit about the background of Propel, and where you’ve come from. What’s your background?

JC: I am a consumer software guy. I came from Silicon Valley. My last job was at Facebook, where I was a product manager for Facebook Groups. Before that, I was a product manager at LinkedIn. I was leading the LinkedIn News & Events team. Before that, I was a software engineer. My experience is really building consumer software at scale.

I left Facebook in March of this year, looking for something a little bit more entrepreneurial and a little bit more focused on social impact, which lead me out here to Brooklyn. I moved across the country to work at Significance Labs, which is a fellowship here in Brooklyn. It’s a non-profit tech accelerator that helps entrepreneurs like myself kind of get their start building social enterprises, whether they’re nonprofits or for-profits, which kind of takes me into the history of Propel.

We started Propel in June of 2014, based on kind of the exploration of talking to folks in the community. That’s where Significance Labs really had us start, was talking to lots of low-income Americans here in the five boroughs and understanding what their daily concerns were, understanding how they use technology, so on and so forth. One of the things we heard from low-income Americans that we talked to here was that they spent a lot of time navigating government services, so things like food stamps and welfare and public housing, so on and so forth.

I realized at the time that I had no empathy with that experience. I had no idea what it was like to apply for food stamps or go through any of these application forms, and so I went through all of those forms myself just to see what they would be like. I spent basically two weeks where my team and I applied to every government benefit we could find just to understand what the application processes were like.

We found that, across the board, the processes were pretty onerous, so they were tough. They often used confusing language. The forms were often in paper rather than online. If you managed to find a website that allowed you to process the forms online, they looked like they were out of, like, 1995. They’re, like, built for Internet Explorer, and may have a bunch of really obvious bugs.

Pretty much all of them don’t work on mobile. We didn’t find a single application that was suited for people’s mobile phones, and we think specifically that’s a really big gap in the market. We know that a lot of low-income Americans in 2014 are accessing the Internet primarily through their mobile phones. It used to be the case, maybe in 2009, that a desktop computer was the first piece of technology bought to access the Internet, and then if you had extra disposable income, you’d go and buy a smartphone.

I think that’s flipped a little bit in 2014. It’s a trend that’s happened really quickly, where now the first piece of technology you buy to access the Internet is really the smart phone, and if you have extra income, you go and buy a computer. So we think building technology that works kind of natively on the cell phone is really, really important.

JM: That’s very admirable. I like the idea that you want to bring good design to more people and not just make it available to certain privileged groups. Why do you think that’s so important to you?

JC: Well, I think part of it is almost an ethical thing, which is that we believe everyone deserves good design, right? Because good design leads to simple experiences. It leads to a better understanding of complicated systems. It leads to a feeling of empowerment, where you feel like you can go and tackle whatever it is that you’re trying to do rather than feeling confused or scared or disempowered by a system that seems too complicated for you to get a grasp on. That’s something that shouldn’t be reserved for only a privileged set of people. That’s, like, a very core—I don’t want to say like a human right. It’s, like, the ability to navigate these systems in a way that makes sense for you.

We think that a lot of technology and a lot of design is not right for low-income Americans, in large part, because there aren’t as many people focusing on it in the same way; in the same way that the roads and street lights are nicer in higher income neighborhoods, whereas the roads and street lights and all that are generally less well kept in lower-income neighborhoods because the taxpayers there can’t make as much of a fuss as the taxpayers in rich neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean that it’s less of a problem. Specifically for design, we think that there’s so much low hanging fruit in helping low-income Americans have technology that is actually well designed, and we need to go and pick some of it right now.

JM: What drew you to this project? Like, what inspired it? Do you know someone who’s been the recipient of SNAP benefits? I’m just wondering who in your life inspired this.

JC: Not personally. I think, to be more precise, I was inspired by someone that I talked to in their home in Queens in June, who told us about the complications of navigating the SNAP programs, the complications of getting benefits, and also how much they mattered to her and her kids.

I’m personally attracted to the field of solving technology issues of poverty. I personally grew up as the child of two immigrants. Like, we had trouble making ends meet throughout my entire childhood. Now that I’ve had the privilege of having gone to Stanford for an education, having worked years at these top Silicon Valley firms, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to use my skills toward a problem that I think really matters.

As far as inspiration, it comes back to us going through the application forms ourselves. I think I’m personally pretty used to using a lot of the technology that comes out of Silicon Valley, a lot of smartphone apps, and a lot of the top websites—things like Facebook and Google and LinkedIn and Twitter, so on and so forth. These are kind of the things that fill my online life, and realizing that the applications for food stamps in particular were so far from that, in terms of user experience and usability, is really what motivated me to work on it.

JM: I read on Propel’s website that you have a background, like you said, at Facebook, and then also at The World Bank, which seems appropriate for this project. How would you say your background has informed your work on this app?

JC: I think the biggest way is I’m kind of used to building good consumer technology. That’s kind of been my bias all along. That’s what I spent the last four years at Facebook and LinkedIn doing is trying to build really streamlined, simple, powerful user experiences, and I think that’s the kind of experience that we benefit a lot from by bringing it into applications like food stamps.

My experience at The World Bank, in particular, was fantastic. I was an intern and then a consultant there when I was finishing up college. I was working on mobile banking through an organization called CGAP. It actually doesn’t apply a lot to what I’m doing now. Really, what we were doing back at The World Bank was toward a nascent era of mobile banking, so this is like using M-Pesa in Kenya to transfer money between people.

We felt that a lot of these interfaces were just not very well designed, right? It was kind of like UI consulting for these various types of organizations. It was all things like—this was the first time that someone’s accessed financial services, and they’re doing it on, like, a T9 cell phone. How do you design the menu such that it makes the most sense for them? What are the analogues you draw? So we produced a couple of materials through The World Bank for these mobile banking organizations to kind of build these banking interfaces in the most understandable way possible.

JM: What agencies have you worked with so far to develop this app?

JC: We think for this app to work well, it has to make sense for government agencies, as well. At the end of the day, these are the folks that are actually going to produce the benefit. They’re the ones who actually have the money to distribute throughout the food stamp system. We kind of see ourselves as an easier entryway into their process, right? Their application process is kind of a barrier right now. We’re trying to reduce that barrier.

The organization we worked with or spoken to most closely is the New York City Human Resources Administration. They’re the ones who administer food stamps here in New York City. We’re also in contacts with some folks in Philadelphia that are working on this. Food stamps is a federally funded, state administered program. Primarily, each of the fifty states has their own agency that runs public welfare or runs food stamps, in particular. Our goal is to get in touch with each of those and make sure that we’re building the right product for them.

JM: Have there been any regulations that you’ve had to work around to make this app possible?

JC: Yeah. I mean, it’s a little tricky. Anything new in a category kind of results in us having to navigate regulations that aren’t really built for the thing that we’re trying to build, right? When you build something that’s kind of a new thing in a category, there are fundamentally, like—the laws don’t make as much sense for them. We’re definitely working through it.

JM: I know it’s early on in the process of building this app. You’ve only been launched a few months.

JC: Right.

JM: …but have you gotten any feedback as far as success stories that you could share?

JC: Yeah. I think our biggest success story is more of a numbers one.

In Brooklyn over the summer, while we were testing our app and building out the initial versions, we helped 246 people apply for food stamps. We’ve been following up with each of them individually since to understand kind of the impact and how they’ve gone through the application process, and how it turns out. We want to make sure we get them on the way to actually having an EBT card with money on it that they can go spend on groceries.

We’ve started to receive word—when you apply for food stamps, the application process can take up to a month. Even though we kind of ran this back in August and September, we’re only now hearing back about whether someone’s gotten the actual, physical EBT card or not. We’ve started to hear back from a trickle of folks who say they’ve received benefits after applying through us, which is really gratifying for us. We helped about 200 people apply, and we’re hearing from about five to ten people each week who say that they’ve freshly received SNAP benefits.

We think it’s really—it’s something we’re really proud of. Even though 200 isn’t a huge number, by any means, and it’s kind of…

JM: That’s a good start, though.

JC: It’s the tip of the iceberg, right? For each of those people, they received benefits where they wouldn’t have previously. The average SNAP benefit per month is about $140. Multiply that by twelve months in a year, so we’re helping them make over $1400 in new purchasing power for food. If that’s the impact we can have for even a handful of people, that’s, like, a meaningful thing for us.

JM: That’s so great.

What have you learned about food assistance that has surprised you so far? Is there one thing in particular in your research that really struck you?

JC: I’ve learned that there is a vibrant ecosystem of nonprofits and organizations that are kind of working in this field. It’s not the case that nobody cares about food insecurity and so on, right? There are actually lots and lots of great organizations that are kind of working on food insecurity.

Everywhere we go, we find organizations that are really motivated to help low-income Americans who don’t have money to pay for their daily food, so we talk to a lot of, like, food pantries, and a lot of social work organizations that are all fantastic and really inspiring in terms of their on-the-ground efforts, and how deeply integrated they are in the community. I think that’s the thing that I’ve learned the most about through this project.

JM: In my experience, and in doing research on this topic, too, I’ve noticed that public assistance programs face a lot of scorn in the U.S. for many reasons. I was wondering: Do you think that this app could help to reduce some of the negativity that people who apply for SNAP benefits face?

JC: Yeah. We think so, because fundamentally what we’re doing is we’re trying to make it easier for you to apply for SNAP on your own. It’s a self-serve application process. There are a bunch of other ways to apply for SNAP that usually involve going and standing in a welfare office, or going out to a social worker and having them process the paperwork for you. While we think those things absolutely need to exist and need to be efficient and need to work really well, I think that a lot of people would rather apply from kind of the privacy of their own home—from their own phone, wherever they are.

Applying for welfare, applying for food stamps, is a very personal issue, and we think it should stay that way.

JM: Makes sense.

You’ve already talked about some of the goals that you have so far. You want to expand nationwide. Are there any other goals that you have for Easy Food [Stamps] or maybe even Propel? I know that Easy Food Stamps isn’t your only target.

JC: Right, yeah, so a little bit of background. Our company is called Propel, and our first product was called Easy Food Stamps. We specifically set it up that way because we imagined Propel at maturity building more than just one product. Easy Food Stamps is kind of our product and brand for helping you apply for food stamps, but our mission is really to make the government more user-friendly, to make it easier to get the benefits they qualify for, and to reduce the friction of the application processes for things.

We imagine ourselves at maturity helping people apply for a number of benefits across the board, so not just food stamps, but also things like welfare, things like public housing, things like WIC, Medicaid, so on and so forth. That’s kind of our long term goal. Right now, we’re really focused on making our food stamps product work as well as possible across the country. I think, after that, if we can build a strong base and build trust with the users we’re providing value for, we’d have a really clear path toward building other products that make sense for them, too.

JM: Sort of to play off of what you just said, I’m wondering: If you had a message behind your work, what would you like for that message to be? What would you like to say with your efforts here?

JC: I think it’s really that everyone deserves great design. It’s something that you and I have kind of talked about a little bit already, but it’s something that we feel really strongly about. We feel that, because the low-income population, in some cases, may not have the best design, it’s another thing. Talking to low-income folks in the community, you start to understand. If you’re a single mother with two kids, you’re in community college, and you’re working a side job to make ends meet, you really don’t have the time to struggle through a complicated application form that is buggy or doesn’t work on your phone or that is confusing and makes you type in the wrong answers.

Pretty much everyone hates being inconvenienced by bad software, right? It’s frustrating to go to a website that doesn’t work well. For me, it’s rarely a matter of do I get to put food on the table or not. We found that was the case for people navigating the food stamp application, which was also not a great user experience, but the stakes were a lot higher for them. It’s not just that everyone deserves great design. It’s that, for these folks, the stakes are higher for them to not have great design, and so we need to fill that gap as quickly as we can.

Honestly, we’re working on this problem, but there’s tons of space here. There’s a lot of opportunity, and we’d love for other entrepreneurs and other companies to be working on this issue with us.

JM: Are you accepting donations?

JC: You know, we’re not right now. We ran a Kickstarter campaign that was pretty successful.

JM: Right.

JC: Right now, we’re trying to make things work as a for-profit social enterprise, which means we are actually raising funding, but we’re raising from angel investors and providing equity.

JM: What have the Kickstarter funds allowed you to do so far?

JC: The Kickstarter funds, we raised in, I think, mid-August. We were part of an incubator called Significance Labs, that was kind of paying my team and I a living wage to work on these types of problems throughout the course of the summer. That ended on August 15. On that day, we stopped receiving paychecks and had to make the hard decision of whether we wanted to keep working on this project full-time or not. My team and I were all convinced that this was a problem that was worth working on, and that we were making good progress.

The Kickstarter campaign is allowing us to work on this project full-time without having to take side consulting gigs or whatever to pay our bills. It’s really helped us to pay rent for the last few months.

JM: Oh, wow. [laughs]

JC: Yeah.

JM: That’s good. So, if anyone listening wants to follow your work online, keep up with what you’re doing, where would you direct them to?

JC: Yeah!

JM: Do you have any website addresses or Twitter handles, for example, that you would recommend?

JC: Yeah, definitely. Our website is joinpropel.com. That’s kind of our company website where you can read news about us, where you can see our bios and track our products, and so on. We have a Twitter handle, as well. That’s @easyfoodstamps, spelled like it should be. We kind of post product updates about Easy Food Stamps there, as well. If anyone wants to get in touch with us through email, my email is info at joinpropel.com.

JM: Alright! Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

JC: Ah, no. Thank you very much for having me today, Josh. I really appreciate your time.

JM: Yeah, you too. I know you have a lot of work to do…

JC: [laughs] Yeah!

JM: …so I’ll let you get back to it.

JC: Alright, thanks.

JM: Alright. Thank you, Jimmy.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in cozy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created our theme music.

To learn more about the topics discussed in this episode, check out the show notes at pluralofyou.org. You can subscribe to this podcast while you’re there, at pluralofyou.org/subscribe, or you can search for The Plural of You in iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can follow The Plural of You on Facebook and Twitter at pluralofyou. Feel free to share your comments or suggest guests through those sites. You can also email me. That address is josh at pluralofyou.org.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Think of at least three things you have accomplished that you are proud of, then write them down or memorize them. That way, you’ll always have at least three reasons to be proud of yourself during tough times.

That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.

Notes

  1. See the Resources page at the Coastal Resource and Resiliency Center’s website. This project later became a team effort.
  2. That article was “The Decline of Trust in the United States”, and was featured on the Washington Post’s website.
  3. Wikipedia has a page on negativity bias, and this article from Aeon Magazine summarizes the research. More specifically, this statement referenced materials from two books: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.
  4. This statement was based on ideas presented in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, in addition to the sources from Note 3. See also the work of economist Max Roser.
  5. See the Program Data section of the Food and Nutrition Service’s website.