"The Benefit Bank,"by Robert Brand November/December 2003 issue of Poverty & Race
The Benefit Bank (TBB) is an Internet-based, counselor-assisted service that enables moderate- and low-income working families to increase their income dramatically by researching, finding, and automatically applying for benefits to which they may be entitled.
Current Census data show that 34.8 million people in the United States — 12.2 million of them children — are living below the federal poverty level.
There are programs that help, although most income enhancement programs serve far fewer people than those eligible and needing assistance. Indeed, more than $35 billion in public funds are going unclaimed each year by low-income people in the U.S. This situation keeps people in poverty and undercuts the potential of policies to “make work pay.”
Tax and public benefit income enhancement programs are under-enrolled, in large part because nearly all of them have cumbersome enrollment procedures. These procedures challenge public bureaucracies in times of scarcity while placing individuals and families who are eligible for public benefits at a disadvantage.
TBB centralizes and simplifies tax forms and benefits that exist at every level of government as well as those available through private initiatives. Use of this program can increase the incomes of low- and moderate-income families by as much as $10,000 per year.
TBB will eventually track more than 70 federal, state, local, and private benefits, with the goal of making these benefits accessible. The Benefit Bank helps build an ongoing service relationship with users so they can find ways to work and to organize their way out of poverty. In the future we will link The Benefit Bank to homeowner-ship education, mortgage and financial literacy, and counseling. The Benefit Bank serves as a portal to a range of services that build communities and help individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency.
The Benefit Bank can be part of a community-wide response to poverty. It can help millions overcome poverty, and it can help millions more understand the importance of sound public policies that recognize the dignity of all of us. It lets families learn what income-enhancing benefits they qualify for, helps them apply for those benefits, and has advocates who will stand by them until the benefit is successfully received.
Community-based counselors are available to assist. Basic computer skills, mastery of simple training materials, and an interest in helping neighbors work their way out of poverty are all that is necessary. In addition, The Benefit Bank is multi-lingual. TBB software supports counselors through comprehensive help screens and messages to assist with even the most basic aspects of the program. Counselors have toll-free access to a team of technical support experts who know the software and the benefit programs the system offers.
We are developing The Benefit Bank to be on hundreds of thousands of computers – in faith communities, social service agencies, government offices, schools, libraries, union halls, employers’ offices – anywhere people want to work together to overcome poverty.
We are piloting The Benefit Bank in a group of early-adopter sites that include: congregations, community development corporations, social service agencies, and job training programs.
The Benefit Bank currently covers: federal taxes, including the Earned Income Tax Credit; the Child and Dependent Care Credit; the Additional Child Tax Credit; the Hope and Lifetime Learning Education Credits; amended taxes for up to three years; state taxes, including the state Earned Income Tax Credit; state Children’s Health Insurance Plan (including coverage for parents); Medicaid; Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance; Food Stamps; Child Care Subsidy; pharmaceutical coverage for the elderly; and voter registration.
We expect to have TBB early-adopter, active programs in Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana in January 2004 and then to add states and benefits throughout the year.
As TBB grows in service and in campaigns to end poverty, we will develop a rich, longitudinal set of data (collected with attention to privacy and confidentiality) about the economic lives of people forced to live in poverty. We will work in an environment of repeated voluntary use in a trusted environment, and we will be able to look at data and ask questions that policy research has not had the tools to address. We are in the process of forming an open roundtable to help guide us to make TBB more useful in assisting low- and moderate-income people while building campaigns against poverty. We invite participation and ideas from the PRRAC community.
For more information or to bring The Benefit Bank to your community, contact Robert Brand, 215/557-8103, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Brand is President of Solutions for Progress in Philadelphia email@example.com
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