Tens of thousands of low-income Minnesotans will no longer have to navigate a frustrating maze of paperwork and bureaucracy to access food assistance, child-care support and other social safety net programs.

After two years of behind-the-scenes design and testing, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) this month launched a new online platform, called MNbenefits, that enables poor families to apply for a broad array of public benefits from their living rooms and workplaces.

State officials say the streamlined application platform should help prevent people from losing their benefits unnecessarily and falling deeper into poverty for failure to meet burdensome paperwork requirements.

For the first time, Minnesotans are able to simultaneously apply for most of Minnesota's social safety net programs — including cash assistance and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps — without having to mail or deliver a bewildering thicket of documents to different government agencies. Eligible residents can upload documents to MNbenefits from work or home and complete the application process in as little as 12 minutes, state officials said.

"It's a huge deal," said Deputy Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson. "This is the biggest change in this front-door application for public assistance in more than 30 years."

The change is part of a broader effort by Gov. Tim Walz's administration to reduce cumbersome paperwork requirements for families struggling to pay for food, rent, child care and other essential items.

It comes as Congress weighs a $1.85 trillion social safety net and climate bill that would expand child-care and health care subsidies for millions of Americans. A massive but temporary expansion of public aid since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a record 45% plunge in poverty nationwide since 2018, though surging prices for everything from milk and beef to electricity are currently eroding spending power.

Minnesota lawmakers this summer approved the largest health and human services budget in state history, including long-sought enhancements to the state's family welfare program, known as the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). As a result, approximately 30,000 families enrolled in MFIP have begun receiving increased monthly payments to reflect the cost of living. It was the first cost-of-living adjustment to MFIP in the program's 24-year history and will continue each year in October.

Even with the increase, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three in the MFIP program is $641, or less than half the $1,300 fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities.

Despite this historic expansion of pandemic-era aid, however, many low-income families still face a complicated and overly bureaucratic process to apply for and renew their benefits.

For instance, Minnesota requires families that receive MFIP to submit an eight-page "household report" form every month showing income, household size, assets and multiple other eligibility factors that typically do not change every month.

Many who receive the benefits submit the forms by mail or drop them off at county offices. In the confusion, documents sometimes get lost and people lose crucial benefits.

An in-depth study last year by DHS researchers found that onerous paperwork requirements contributed to a high degree of "churn" in Minnesota's family welfare program and SNAP, in which families frequently rotate on and off benefits even when they still qualify. This churn creates additional stress for poor families, while making it difficult for them to secure stable housing and rise out of poverty, the study found.

"When a resident is already in crisis and they need supports now, it adds another stressful layer for them to actually have to go into [a county office] and spend half their day or a few hours to get help," said Indranie Singh, a senior human resources representative with Hennepin County. MNbenefits, she said, "is stress-free and can be done in their own surroundings."

Janesha Anderson, a 21-year-old mother from north Minneapolis who has a learning disability, said the traditional application system is hardest on people with disabilities and those who lack reliable transportation.

Once a month, Anderson hand-delivers her household report form for MFIP benefits to a Hennepin County office often crowded with other low-income families. She doesn't have a car, so to get there she must take a 20-minute bus ride with her 7-year-old son, Jermel — a trip that she would rather avoid during the pandemic.

And since moving to a new apartment last month, Anderson has been stressed about whether the forms will be sent to her new address. If not, her family's primary source of income could be jeopardized.

"It's not easy keeping track of the documents and bus fare isn't cheap. Every month it's a source of anxiety," she said. "It's great that I can just go online now and not deal with the headaches."

MNbenefits, which was developed with the help of the technology nonprofit Code for America, began last year as a pilot program in 16 counties and now has been rolled out statewide. It can be accessed through all browsers, computers, laptops and phones, and doesn't require a login or password — a common barrier to access.

The application combines enrollment forms for nine safety net programs, including food, child care and housing assistance.

Vicki Parchman of Fridley said she has been "waiting years" for the state to develop an easy-to-use website like MNbenefits. Parchman, who has been unable to work since suffering a severe back injury two decades ago, depends on food stamps and disability benefits to get her through the month. Every fall, she worries about whether her SNAP application will arrive on time or if it will get lost in the mail. Without $170 in monthly food stamp benefits, Parchman suspects she would go hungry or have to rely on community food banks to survive.

For 29 years, Parchman has been the volunteer coordinator of a regular community meal for the poor at Calvary Church in south Minneapolis. She meets people, she said, who are unhoused or struggling with mental health problems, or who are simply unable to navigate the process of submitting paperwork for food stamps and other benefits. Many lack fixed addresses.

"Bureaucracy is a poor person's worst enemy," Parchman said. "Combining these [benefit] programs in one place should go a long way toward getting people the help they need."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisseres