Partners (Number 1, 2006)

The Benefit Bank: An Asset Building Tool

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.

Although programs exist to help them raise their incomes, most serve far fewer than the number who are eligible and in need of assistance.

According to estimates, more than $35 billion in public funds are unclaimed by low-income people in the U.S. each year. Deterred by a cumbersome enrollment process that requires potential recipients to interact with multiple agencies in different locations using different application processes, many simply fail to request benefits. Thus they remain in poverty, unable to accumulate assets.

Access through technology
The Benefit BankTM is a technology-based tool that helps low- and moderate-income individuals and families apply for the benefits and tax credits they are eligible to receive. Asset building, widely recognized as the key to economic empowerment for low- and moderate-income households, is the goal of the program.

Created by Solutions for Progress, a public policy consulting firm working for social change, The Benefit Bank strengthens participants’ economic circumstances by helping them overcome barriers to programs that could increase their incomes.

“These are tough times for all of us, but many families are struggling more than others simply because they’re not receiving the benefits that they should,” says Solutions for Progress CEO, Robert J. Brand. “Some individuals think they are not eligible for certain benefits, others get lost in the complex application process or they are simply unaware the benefits even exist. The Benefit Bank provides an easy and efficient way to get the benefits to those who need them the most.”

Simplifying the application process
The Benefit Bank cuts through application obstacles. This internet-based, counselor-assisted software program serves low- and moderate-income working families by researching, finding and automatically applying for benefits to which they may be entitled. The program processes federal and state tax returns and surveys a range of federal, public health and social services benefits.

Participants work side-by-side with counselors who assist with entering information into an internet-based system. The user-friendly questionnaire is also available in Spanish. As the client enters the data, the program automatically transfers information into benefit applications. Once the client provides all the necessary information, The Benefit Bank fills out the application or tax return and prints it on the appropriate forms. It can even file returns and applications electronically. Information is saved in the system and protected by a password, so clients can return to make updates and file their annual tax returns.

Partnerships extend program’s reach
National sponsors for The Benefit Bank include the National Council of Churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Salvation Army, United Church of Christ, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, AARP, and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Free to all users and host organizations, The Benefit Bank serves social service agencies, job training programs, advocacy groups, public sector offices, unions, private employers, faith- and community-based organizations. In the workplace the program enhances productivity by decreasing employee turnover; it can provide substantial wage and benefit increases at no cost to the employer and potentially increase employee pension plan participation.

The Benefit Bank is up and running in several southeastern states and nationwide. An integral part of Florida’s Prosperity Campaigns in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties (Tampa Bay area), it will soon be implemented in Jacksonville through the Northeast Florida Prosperity Campaign. The service is available in Mississippi, and development is underway in Louisiana and Georgia. Pennsylvania, Kansas, Ohio and Washington D.C. use the program, and California, Maryland and Texas are working to develop it. The goal of The Benefit Bank is to be operational in all 50 states by 2010.

Because this asset-building tool is useful for a wide range of organizations, The Benefit Bank can become a crucial part of a community-wide response to poverty. In addition, the program builds relationships between counselors and clients, host sites and the community, and the community and policy makers. The Benefit Bank not only offers an opportunity to help neighbors, but it also provides information that can help organizations advocate more effectively for the communities they serve.

This article was written by Janet Hamer, regional community development manager at the Atlanta Fed’s Jacksonville Branch.

For more information on The Benefit Bank, visit the website at www.thebenefitbank.com.

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