Spotlight Exclusives

Improving Access to Benefits, By Michelle Henry, Vice President for Asset Building, Seedco

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The social safety net created by the federal government in partnership with states and localities plays a critical role in the lives of millions of Americans.Benefit programs such as food stamps, housing assistance and subsidized health care, coupled with work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the child tax credit and unemployment insurance, offer lifelines to many working families who earn too little to provide for an economically secure life and the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the recession.

But these benefits are only useful if those who are eligible for them do, in fact, receive them. Many more Americans are eligible for one or more of these benefits but do not, for a variety of reasons, obtain them. In some cases, people simply don۪t know about available benefits or don۪t know that they are eligible. In others, potential applicants are turned off by unnecessarily burdensome application and re-certification policies.

One study, by McKinsey & Company, estimated that Americans fail to claim at least $65 billion in government services and supports.Another analysis, by the Urban Institute, determined that only 5 percent of low-income, working families with children receive all of three key supports for which they qualifychild care assistance, Medicaid and food stamps.

Increasingly, nonprofit organizations and government agencies are working to close this “benefits gap.”Taking this on has become a priority for two main reasons.

First, states and localities that have large numbers of people not taking advantage of federally funded programs such as the EITC or children۪s health insurance are losing out on large amounts of federal spending, which is urgently needed as communities seek to emerge from the economic recession.

Second, increased enrollment in these programs will help many more people and their families make ends meet and move into more economically secure lives.

In response, government agencies, service providers, nonprofits and some for-profit companies are looking at ways to maximize the number of people gaining access to the benefits and supports to which they are entitled.

In some cases, advances in technology are making it far more practical for a person to be screened and apply for a wide array of benefits and income-supporting programs at the same time.

Thanks to the federal stimulus, public policy changes and the philanthropic community, there is a renewed focus on outreach effortsincluding the use of non-traditional approaches to reach those who are eligible for benefits. In many cases, new outreach and screening are replacing the old model in which applicants are required to visit government agency offices sometimes repeatedly to obtain benefits. And some states are rethinking their approach to providing benefits and are moving to reduce obstacles to applying and receiving assistance.

Several nonprofit organizations have made benefits access an important focus.

At Seedco, we created EarnBenefits, a web-based screening and application tool that allows people to conveniently find out if they are eligible for a range of benefits and work supports, and then helps them apply. The tool is now being used in seven states, in partnership with community-based and faith-based organizations, often working hand-in-hand with such institutions as community colleges, One-Stop Career Centers or housing programs. We also work closely with the local and state government agencies that administer benefits to streamline the application completion and submission process.

But our experience with EarnBenefits has made clear that improving the technology involved in benefits access is only part of the solution. To be effective, we use a broader approach that first simplifies and integrates the eligibility and application process and leverages program staff to assist applicants and provide ongoing case-management assistance. And all the data collected during the interview process is automatically stored to facilitate future applicant screenings and track outcomes across the program.

Since 2005, Seedco has helped 49,915 working individuals and families secure receipt of $69.8 million in work supports and government benefits. EarnBenefits also helps participants gain access to private benefits such as discounted phone service and links them to private-sector services such as bank accounts.

SingleStop USA has developed an approach that provides clients with benefits-screening and other services, such as financial counseling and employment support. A study of the organization۪s pilot program in New York City found that families gained an average of $1,800 in tax credits and $5,000 in benefits.

The Benefit Bank is a web-based, counselor-assisted program that simplifies and centralizes the process of applying for many state and federal benefits for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. In Ohio, The Benefit Bank has worked with more than 35,000 clients and calculated that those clients were eligible for a range of benefits totaling $38.4 million.

Around the country, programs like EarnBenefits are being used on the ground by many community-based groups and other nonprofit entities that are including benefit outreach and screening as part of a broader strategy. Benefit outreach has become part of wider efforts to improve families۪ economic opportunities through workforce development, financial counseling, and other services. More and more, the field is recognizing the critical importance of maximizing benefits, along with providing other important services.

The push within the nonprofit sector to improve low-income families۪ access to state and federal benefits has prompted some government agencies to make their own customer-friendly changes.

At least half of the states now use some kind of online screening program or benefit calculator for food stamps. Twenty-three states now allow applications for food stamps to be filed over the Internet, without submitting a paper form. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 17 of those states also now have an integrated online application to give applicants access to more than one program. In some cases, applicants are able to avoid a face-to-face meeting and download application materials. The COMPASS system in Pennsylvania is seen as a leader among the states in fashioning an easier-to-navigate benefits application system.

Improving access to a range of benefits and work supports should be a priority for the nonprofit sector, foundations involved in social policy and federal and state policymakers. Making it easier to gain access to such assistance will provide new economic security for many families and generate economic activity in communities struggling to emerge from the recession. Pilot programs and new approaches are showing strong results and deserve to be replicated and expanded to benefit far more people. And at the state level, new approaches to benefits should be embraced.

Michelle Henry is Vice President for Asset Building at Seedco, a national nonprofit organization that helps low-income people and communities move toward economic prosperity.

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