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VRM | Social Services Databases

Published: May 12, 2009

State social service agencies are responsible for determining eligibility for public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, state-based General Assistance, and other benefits. These programs cover over 60 million people nationwide, many of whom may not be included on driver’s license databases or other lists. States manage these programs using computerized constituent databases, which typically include clients of several different programs. These databases contain the essential data elements necessary for voter registration and already possess the capacity to share information electronically with other state and federal government agencies.

Data Elements | Database Architecture | Data-Sharing Capabilities | Programs Covered by Social Service Databases: Food Stamps, Medicaid, TANF

A.      Data Elements

All social service databases administering the programs with the greatest population coverage (TANF, Food Stamps, and Medicaid) contain the following data elements for program beneficiaries: (1) full name; (2) date of birth; (3) address;[26] (4) Social Security number; and (5) citizenship information.

1. Citizenship Information

Social service agencies collect citizenship information in a variety of different ways. Under the 1996 welfare reforms, agencies are required to determine the citizenship and immigration status of applicants for virtually all federal public benefits.[27] According to guidelines issued by the Department of Justice, states may collect this information either by requiring applicants to submit documentary proof of citizenship or by asking applicants to sign a declaration affirming their citizenship under penalty of perjury.[28]  A later federal law further required that Medicaid applicants show documentary proof of citizenship.[29]  For TANF and food stamps, most states employ the written affirmation, but a small number of states do require documentary proof of citizenship for these programs as well.[30]

While the Brennan Center has determined that all state social service agencies that administer these benefits collect citizenship information from beneficiaries, we are still working to confirm that all states include this information in their databases.[31] Because states do collect this information during the application process and the ruled of some programs administered in unified multiprogram databases do require administrators to retain this information electronically, we have reason to believe that citizenship information is almost universally included. For example, the federal rules governing state administration of Medicaid – a benefit that is often administered using databases that also contain client information for other programs – require that states retain citizenship information in their Medicaid databases.[32] Given that most states integrate the management of Medicaid, food stamps, and TANF into a single database (as detailed below) and that food stamps and TANF applicants must establish citizenship during the application process, it is highly likely that most, if not all, social service databases contain this information.

B.      Database Architecture

All state social service agencies use electronic databases to manage beneficiaries of public assistance programs. While social service agencies typically have several databases devoted to managing their clients, almost all states have one or more unified databases that either jointly manage eligibility for several major federal programs or that compile clients from individual program databases into a master list. These unified databases contain all of the personal information necessary to register all eligible people in the database to vote. While specific database architecture varies from state to state, federal standards have laid the groundwork for a common statewide, multiprogram database structure.

1. Unified Databases

As a result of these federal guidelines and a nationwide trend toward unified applications for TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid,  the vast majority of states have elected to manage applicants for benefits from these three programs (at minimum) in a single database. A total of 45 states and the District of Columbia have such integrated databases. See the chart attached as Appendix C for more detail.

2. Disaggregated Databases

A few states[33] lack the unified databases described above. In these states, the most common model is to have one database the manages cash and nutritional assistance programs like TANF and food stamps, and a second database that manages health assistance programs like Medicaid. In all cases except one,[34] these databases are nevertheless statewide and would only require one additional data transfer to achieve the same voter registration effect as a state with a fully unified database.[35] See the chart attached as Appendix C for more detail.

3. Federal Standards

The federal government has encouraged the development of statewide computerized databases to track state recipients of aid since the early nineties, as a way to cut down on perceived inefficiency and fraud in the system.  By creating national standards for database design and encouraging states to administer several key social service programs in a single unified database, these efforts may facilitate the use of these databases for voter registration.

In 1992, the federal government offered a 50% reimbursement to state public assistance agencies that developed statewide computerized databases that met federal “Family Assistance Management Information Systems” (FAMIS) standards set by the Department of Health and Human Services.[36] Because of the structure of program eligibility and requirements for FAMIS certification, most FAMIS-certified databases covered AFDC, food stamps, and Medicaid recipients.[37] By the time the program ended (concurrently with the enactment of welfare reform in 1996), thirty eight (38) states had FAMIS-certified databases.[38]

Similarly, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 offered increased child welfare funding under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to states that implemented a SACWIS, or a Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System.[39] States that accept SACWIS funding must create an automated statewide database that maintains client information for all programs related to child support services, including family assistance programs such as TANF and food stamps.[40] According to the Department of Health and Human Services, each state’s SACWIS must hold “a complete, current, accurate, and unified case management history on all children and families served by the [funding recipient] State agency.”[41]  Currently, forty (40) states and the District of Columbia have accepted SACWIS funding; twenty-seven (27) of which have fully operational systems[42] and fourteen (14) of which are in the process of developing SACWIS-compliant databases.[43]

Regardless of their use of SACWIS or FAMIS funding, all states are required to have Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) that conform to certain federal standards.[44] A majority of states have integrated these systems with or linked them to other benefits eligibility databases. The Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services dictate the guidelines for MMIS systems and provide states with technical assistance to develop and maintain their systems.[45]

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service also provides extensive technical assistance to help states upgrade and maintain information systems that manage food stamps and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) eligibility. Like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Nutrition Service promulgates system security requirements, though its other guidelines for state databases are not binding requirements, but instead models for best practices.[46]

C.      Data-Sharing Capabilities

Public assistance agencies in Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico already have the capability to share information contained in their benefit recipient databases with other government agencies through a federal data sharing program called the Public Assistance Reporting Information System (PARIS). PARIS helps to identify individuals with the same Social Security number to aid caseworkers in eligibility determination by identifying clients who may receive benefits in more than one state or who may receive benefits that were not reported to the caseworker. The only state that does not participate is Hawaii, likely due to policy preferences rather than technical capability.[47]

PARIS is a federal data sharing program through which states send information to the Social Security Administration (SSA), which in turn transmits data to federal databases that contain benefit eligibility information. The PARIS system also conducts quarterly matches of each state’s submitted public assistance data. This interstate matching program applies to TANF, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and other public assistance programs covered by the databases in question.[48]

The SSA does not process or access any PARIS data; it simply serves as the link between state databases, which are already connected to the SSA, and other databases that are not directly connected to the states.[49] States have access to the SSA database through a software program called Connect: Direct, which functions similarly to a file transfer protocol in that states upload their files to the program, which encrypts the data for security purposes and then transmits it to the SSA.[50] The file transfer process is not continuous as states update the information in their databases; states must upload their information during scheduled PARIS updates that occur four times a year.[51]

State social service agencies also participate in other database matches. The SSA has a memorandum of understanding with every state regarding the operation of the Beneficiary Earnings and Data Exchange (BENDEX) and State Data Exchange (SDX) matching programs, which allow states to share eligibility and benefits information with the SSA and with other state social service agencies, respectively.

D.      Programs Covered by Social Service Databases

While the databases discussed in this section do not cover all social service programs, they do cover a significant portion of public assistance recipients. The following is a brief overview of the major programs covered by all statewide public assistance databases.

1. Food Stamps

Households with a gross monthly income of up to 130% of the federal poverty line qualify for food stamps under the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).[52] As of 2008, the program served 28,408,010 individuals nationwide; approximately half of these beneficiaries were voting-age adults.[53] The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service estimated in 2006 that about 73.1 percent of the population living below the poverty line participated in the program. About 80 percent of food stamps recipients also receive other government benefits such as TANF, Social Security, SSI, and general assistance.[54]

2. Medicaid

All states are required by federal law to make Medicaid available to the “categorically needy,” which includes individuals who meet TANF requirements, pregnant women and children under 6 whose family income is less than 133% of the federal poverty line, children 6 to 19 whose income is less than 100% of the poverty line, caretakers of children under the age of 18, individuals who qualify for Supplemental Security Income or state disability benefits, and individuals living in medical institutions with incomes under 300% of the SSI income standards.[55] Many states also elect to provide additional benefits to the medically needy and special groups, which include individuals like full-time students up to age 21, people over the age of 65, and the working disabled.[56] Recent figures indicate that Medicaid provides health coverage for about 60 million people nationwide, about half of whom are voting-age adults.[57]


The federal government provides TANF block grants to each state, and each state in turn determines eligibility guidelines for program beneficiaries.[58] While the federal government sets basic standards for TANF eligibility – such as requiring that recipient families include at least one child or pregnant person – income and other eligibility guidelines vary from state to state.[59] State income thresholds (the maximum monthly amount that a family can make and still receive TANF) vary widely, from $215 in Alabama to $2,758 in New Hampshire.[60] As of 2002, about 2 million families, including roughly 5.4 million individual beneficiaries, of who about a quarter are voting-age adults, received TANF benefits.[61] As of 2002, about 81 percent of TANF recipients also received food stamps, and 99.6 percent of TANF recipients also received Medicaid.[62]

[26] Some states may only collect and maintain mailing rather than residential addresses, but research suggests that the majority of states do collect residential address information. See Nancy Cole, ABT Associates, Feasibility and Accuracy of Record Linkage to Estimate Multiple Program Participation Table A-7 (2003) [hereinafter Food Programs Feasibility Study].

[27] 62 Fed. Reg. 61345 (Nov. 17, 1997).

[28] Id.

[29] Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 § 6036, 42 U.S.C. § 1396b(x) (2009).

[30] Kathy Barks Hoffman, States Ask for Citizenship from Welfare Recipients, Associated Press for USA Today, Jun. 25, 2008, available at–06–25–2495986492_x.htm.

[31] The Brennan Center has thus far confirmed that 17 states include citizenship information in their databases of TANF and food stamp recipients. These states are Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

[32] See 72 Fed. Reg. 38693 (Jul. 13, 2007).

[33] California, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and Oregon.

[34] California is an exception. While the state has a statewide Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS), its TANF and Food Stamps programs are currently administered through four “Automated Welfare Systems,” each covering several counties. See History of SAWS, (last visited April 24, 2009).

[35] A second data transfer may not be necessary due to program overlap. For example, 99.6% of TANF recipients also receive Medicaid. United States House Committee on Ways and Means, 2004 Green Book: Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the House Committee on Ways and Means (2004), 15–3 [hereinafter Green Book].

[36] See United States General Accounting Office, Determining Financial Eligibility Is Cumbersome and Can Be Simplified (Nov. 2001) at 30.

[37] See United States General Accounting Office, Improving State Automated Systems Requires Coordinated Effort (Apr. 2000) at 19.

[38] Id.

[39] See 42 U.S.C. § 674(3)(C), (3)(D).

[40] See About SACWIS, (last visited April 24, 2009).

[41] Id.

[42] The states with fully operational SACWIS databases are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and West Virginia.

[43] The states that are in the development stages of their SACWIS projects are Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington.

[44] Social Security Act of 1935, Pub. L. No. 92–603 § 235 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 42 U.S.C.); 42 C.F.R. § 433.111.

[45] Overview Medicaid Management Information Systems, (last visited April 24, 2009).

[46] See generally United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, FNS Handbook 901, (Aug. 2007), available at

[47] PARIS is primarily concerned with identifying beneficiaries who travel across state lines to receive benefits in other states. Due to Hawaii’s remoteness from the U.S., this is likely a less pressing concern.

[48] See PARIS Home Page, (last visited Apr. 24, 2009).

[49] PARIS Flowchart of Data,  (last visited Apr. 24, 2009).

[50] Instructions for DMDC Direct: Connect on the PARIS Project, (last visited Apr. 24, 2009).

[51] Id.

[52] Green Book, supra note 35, at 15–10.

[53] FNS Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), (last visited Apr. 24, 2009).

[54] Green Book, supra note 35, at 15–21. 27 percent of SNAP recipient households receive disability benefits as well. Id.

[55] United States Department of Health and Human Services, et. al., Medicaid At-a-Glance 2005: A Medicaid Information Source 1 (2005).

[56] Id. at 2.

[57] The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Medicaid: A Primer 2009: Key Information on the Nation’s Health Program for Low-Income People 26 (Jan. 2009).

[58] Green Book, supra note 35, at 7–4.

[59]See id.

[60] Gretchen Rowe, Mary Murphy, and James Kaminski, Welfare Rules Databook: State TANF Policies as of July 2007 64–69 (Aug. 2008).

[61] Green Book, supra note 35, at 7–32, 7–88.

[62] Id. at 15–3.